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An Almost Halal Disaster

Massive ruts coming down from Shenli Daban Pas...

We received the phone call at 4:30 pm, ten minutes before the guests arrived, “Is there a halal restaurant in the area? My parents have never eaten in a non Muslim‘s home before.”

Our friend from Western China had asked if he could bring his father and mother to stay overnight in our home while he showed them our University Campus. Of course, we welcomed him, since during his time here, he and his wife had been like family to us. We had even brought their first-born baby home from the hospital after his birth when the wife remained hospitalized due to serious complications.

From the desert at the base of the mountains of Xinjiang Province, our friend was the first from his “wild western” village to travel outside of China, and then to the USA for his PhD. We were eager to meet the parents of our Chinese cowboy!

But what a dilemma, having spent most of my day researching what their Ethnic group ate, I had come up with obscure wheat buns, lamb and one spice, cumin. Having no source for halal lamb, I decided to play it safe by baking halal chicken (with bones in case they, like many other Asians, like to chew them) with lots of cumin and five spices. I took a poll of all the Chinese shoppers (afterwards, two of them confessed to being Japanese) in the Chinese Grocery where I shop, and decided on Chinese broccoli, bok choi and noodles to complete the meal.

Had I ever cooked Chinese food for Chinese people before? Never! At the counter, I continued hounding the poor Asian people for recipe ideas for the broccoli and bok choi..”With onions?” I asked one woman about the bok choi. “No, with miso and tofu, she answered me,” assuring me that she owned a Japanese restaurant and often served Muslims. (I had gotten really literal here..”Chinese Muslims from Western China..What do they eat???”

Miso and tofu soup sounded very Japanese to me, or Korean, but It was around 2pm and I was pretty desperate. So, throwing caution to the wind, I grabbed both and felt pretty confidant that I would have two courses at least. “Oyster sauce”, another woman added, pointing at the broccoli, “and onions?” I asked, thinking that none of this would taste very good without my ubiquitous onions.

“Yes, onions”, they all nodded.

What kind of rice do Chinese people eat?”, I asked the woman at the counter, as I sized up her nationality. She was beginning to seem Japanese to me. In my desperation, I was blatantly racial stereo typing everyone in the store. I pointed to the rice we eat which is Thai or Korean, and she pointed to another brand which I gratefully assumed was correct.

“Thank you all”, I bowed, as I motioned for each person to go ahead of me, since I had taken their time. A lesson in patience for all of us, I’m sure.

I returned home, inspired and tired, thawed the halal chicken kept in our freezer for these occasions and got in a little rest before the big prep. Chicken was baking, noodles soaking, veggies and tofu chopped, table set with chop sticks and bowls for soup and main course, dogs banished (Muslims prefer not to be licked or assaulted by dogs)..when we received the phone call.  A restaurant in the area? Parents have never eaten in a non-Muslim home?

They arrived, dignified and wary in their manner. We were the first Americans they had met.

I had decided to cook everything ahead, with full aroma emanating from the kitchen..thinking at least they would know that I had prepared a meal for them.

Mother sat straight in her chair, studying my every move. Her face was beautiful like that of a brown and aging warrior princess with high cheekbones, true beauty from a far off land. Father with smile lines etching his eyes still watched us and occasionally, the ceiling, intently. How strange they must have felt  in this first Western home.

I brought out dates, and they, being Muslims, knew what to do with them! Tea was also familiar, though I’m quite sure the mugs were a conundrum. The cookies were another matter, but the two-year old grandson who surprisingly had come too, knew what to do with them. Our friend translated, though the conversation went awkwardly, this was one of  the first time we’ve felt rather like adversaries with guests in our home.

The conversation turned to mealtime, and yes, they decided they would eat with us. As we sat down, the baby happily ate the Miso soup, though his grandparents did not. The rice was familiar, Grandpa took that. Poured on hot sauce and proceeded to eat it! I’d been told that he doesn’t eat vegetables!

I then took a piece of chicken and spoonful of noodles and put it on his plate. He nodded in thanks. Then I did the same with Grandma! She nodded in thanks! I’d done the right thing! They began eating!

Our friend told me, his mother liked the food and because she runs a restaurant, she would not say it if it weren’t true! I put my hand on my heart and bow! Relieved!

We served dates for desert..and sat for several hours in the living room, “talking”, smiling, yawning, until they climbed the stairs for bed after which I heard the portable cot collapse with one of them. I  didn’t ask questions.

I have been a guest in the home of people who don’t speak my language and whose culture I don’t understand, and at the end of a long day I am just glad to get into my room and shut the door. I hope that was as true for them as it has been for me.

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