Students struggle to find halal food in hall canteens

13 Jan 2019

By Matthew Loh

Izzdanial Iskandar, 22, orders an ayam penyet at Tamarind Hall’s canteen. The stall is one of two halal-certified stalls in NTU’s hall canteens.

Getting food while living on campus is convenient for most students, who can pop by their hall canteens for a meal.

But for Muslim students like second-year School of Biological Sciences student Izzdanial Iskandar, 22, grabbing a bite is more difficult.

The stalls at Izzdanial’s hall canteen are not halal-certified, so the Hall of Residence 14 resident must walk about five minutes to the neighbouring Tamarind Hall for his meals.

As of November last year, there are only two halal-certified stalls in NTU’s 10 hall canteens — one in Tamarind Hall and the other in Canteen 2. Both sell ayam penyet, an Indonesian fried chicken dish usually served with rice.

As a result, most Muslim students living on campus have to eat from these two stalls, or settle for stalls that do not use pork or lard — which some feel uncomfortable with.

Izzdanial said: “The main difficulty for me is that there’s no variety. I can’t really be eating ayam penyet every day, and I prefer not to risk eating from non halal certified stalls because I have no guarantee that their suppliers do not store their other meat together with pork.”

His next alternative is at the North Spine, which is a 1.2 kilometre-walk from Hall 14. Central areas on campus have multiple halal eateries, such as McDonald’s at the North Spine and the Koufu food court at the South Spine.

“It’s time-consuming to travel there and it’s especially inconvenient for me during exam periods when I just want to eat my meals quickly so I can get back to studying,” he said.

A spokesperson from the Office of Housing and Auxiliary Services said that it requires every food court and canteen on campus to have at least one halal-certified food stall and stated from their records that there should be six Muslim stalls in the hall canteens -- however, not all of them are halal-certified.

They did not elaborate further on why the ruling of one halal-certified food stall per hall canteen is not strictly enforced, but said they welcome more halal stall owners.

Second-year School of Art, Design and Media (ADM) student Nurjannah Suhaimi, 22, said NTU should introduce more halal food choices in hall canteens to cater to Muslim students.

“It would help to make the campus a lot more inclusive,” said the North Hill resident.

There was a halal-certified stall selling chicken rice in the North Hill Food Court, but it shut down last November.

The closest halal-certified options for Nurjannah now are snacks from the mini-mart at the North Hill or at Canteen 2, which is halfway across campus.

Whenever she attends classes at ADM, she usually waits in school until dinnertime to eat at Canteen 2 or at the North Spine. When she has no time to do that, she “compromises” and eats from the Western stall at the North Hill Food Court, which does not use pork or lard.

“Even then, I still feel uncomfortable eating there sometimes because I don’t know if the utensils from the Western stall have touched pork before.”

Stalls with the potential to go halal

Last November, the Nanyang Chronicle found that each hall canteen had at least one stall that fulfills a key requirement for obtaining a halal food certificate — selling food without pork or lard.

However, these stall owners may not be motivated to apply for a halal certification, as some Muslim diners are willing to eat non-halal food as long as it does not contain pork or lard, said Associate Professor Lynda Wee, of Nanyang Business School’s division of marketing and international business.

Other Muslim diners opt not to eat meat altogether and have fruits and vegetables instead, she added.

Being halal-certified also increases the cost of operation due to the need to comply with certain guidelines, such as training current staff members and hiring at least two permanent Muslim employees. These costs may be passed on to diners, who may be unwilling to pay for these extra charges, added Dr Wee.

But stall owners could be incentivised to apply for halal certification if the hall canteen management provides waivers or rebates to reduce the extra cost of operating a halal stall, she said.

The owners of the stalls which do not sell pork or lard told the Nanyang Chronicle that they would apply for halal certification if the financial costs of maintaining it were waived, but were also concerned about other requirements imposed by the licence.

Owner of an Indian food stall in Canteen 11, Mr Shah, 45, said switching all of his current suppliers to halal food providers would be too troublesome.

Ms Amy Khoo, 52, who owns the Korean food stalls in Pioneer Food Court and Canteen 13, said there are no job vacancies at her stalls and thus cannot hire a Muslim staff, which is required for halal certification.

As of last November, the Office of Housing and Auxiliary Services did not announce any plans to open new halal stalls at the hall canteens. However, Muslim students who stay on campus are hopeful for more halal food options this year.

Izzdanial said: “I just wish that NTU can do more because this issue affects us badly and there’s not much we can do ourselves to fix it.”