Out of the eight diverse cuisines from Taiwan, I had the pleasure of tasting Halal food prepared by the famous Ali Baba’s Indian Kitchen, on my very first night in Taiwan. Situated in TaoYuan City, the restaurant has made its home in a building that has a totally obscure entrance, that it’s possible to miss it completely. In fact, the building entrance sheds no light to the delicacies that this food treasure trove is about to reveal. The Arabic calligraphy, very unusual to be found in Taiwan, makes me feel that I am back on UAE soil.
The dining seating is of very low seating; that it almost feels as if I am seated in an Arab majlis. With dinner at restaurants generally ending at 9 pm in Taiwan, we make sure to arrive at around 7:30 pm, so that we have enough time to enjoy the feast.
A bit about the restaurant itself. Rumour has it that the owner of Ali Baba’s Indian Kitchen, of Pakistani origin, opened a grill stand in a night market. Soon, the grill stand attracted people from the Middle Eastern as well as Asian sub-continent. It also became quite a hit amongst the Taiwanese, so much so that the restaurant owner’s wife helped him to customise the dishes.
As I had literally just arrived in Taiwan, after transfer at Hong Kong, and after having checked into the Hotel Novotel close to Taipei Taoyuan International Airport, I decide to start the meal with some chicken soup that was light on the stomach. Wise choice! It was piping hot, warming up my cold extremities while my eyes wander momentarily to the TV screen staring at me from a distance (the Hindi movie must have been from the 1960s, with the late Dev Anand and Mamata). Incidentally, the Indian waiter who takes down our order, speaks a smattering of Mandarin Chinese whilst the Bengali (Bangladeshi) waiter looks on.
As I finish the last of the soup, the foodie goodies start to emerge from the Ali Baba’s kitchen – the relishes made of cucumber, onions and cabbage, the masala poppadoms, and mint chutney with fresh chillies that almost make my ears go pop. The poppadum is, in particular, delicious, as it has heaped on it onions and tomatoes. When I bite into it, I get taste of jeera (or cumin) melting on my tongue with the onions and tomato. Soon, the kebabs, chicken curry, mutton curry, and vegetable samosas arrive. Not to forget the mutton biryani. One word on the biryani. The mutton is so soft; this is one of the very few times that I have enjoyed the mutton biryani. Just like my mum used to make.
As I’m gorging down those crisp samosa with a soft vegetarian filling, my curiosity is piqued about the existence of Halal restaurants dotted around Taiwan. Dr. Nooruddin Ma, the Vice President of ProTours, Taiwan, who is part of the group, helps me understand that there are two types of restaurants that serve Halal food in Taiwan. The Muslim restaurants that are marked strictly as ‘Halal’ indicate that they are Muslim owned and operated. Whereas, ‘Muslim friendly restaurants’ may have non-Muslim staff, but the meat is halal and is obtained from the halal butchery that is close to the Taiwan Grand Mosque. With around 60,000 Taiwan Muslims and 170,000 Muslims in total including expats (Statistics according to the year 2013), and excluding Muslim tourists visiting Taiwan, he believes that it is imperative that they find places to enjoy great food in Taiwan, confident that the meat is halal.
We finish our meal with a glass of Indian tea loaded with milk – just like they do it back in India. It is hot enough to warm our hearts as we step out into the freezing night. I, for one, am grateful for a fullfilling meal that reminds me of the warmth of Arabia. I know that I will be back to Ali Baba’s Kitchen, another time, another day, another visit.