Finding Halal food is still a struggle for Seoul’s Muslim students
Many Muslim students who come to study in Korea find themselves in a completely new world that works very differently from what they are used to, and finding Halal food is one of the biggest challenges.
According to the Korea Economic Institute, Korea had an estimated population of 150,000 Muslims in 2021 — 45,000 Koreans and 105,000 foreigners. As Seoul is becoming an increasingly popular destination for foreign students, with the number of international students enrolled in degree programs here rising by 20 percent from 2019 to 2021, that Muslim student population is bound to increase as well.
A possible remedy for those struggling to source Halal products is Seoul’s Islam Street.
Islam Street, the nickname given to an area of Itaewon in Yongsan District, central Seoul, that includes Usadan Street, is home to the city’s only mosque, the Seoul Central Masjid.
While Halal food generally refers to food permissible in Islam and for many Muslims means abstaining from eating certain meats like pork, Halal also refers to meat acquired by following a specific slaughtering method. While some Muslims make concessions and eat permissible meat — mainly avoiding pork — some also adhere to the proper slaughtering notion of Halal meat, which is why they abstain from eating any meat that has not been certified as being sacrificed in a Halal way.
It is difficult enough for Muslim students to avoid pork as it is such an integral part of the Korean diet. However, finding properly sacrificed Halal meat is even more difficult and can only be obtained at restaurants that are certified Halal.
“Even though I myself am not that strict about Halal food, my Muslim friends and I always have conversations about how hard it is to find Halal food [in Korea],” said Job Thaitrong, an undergraduate student at Korea University.
One store at Islam Street that specializes in meat is Al-Baraka, right next to the mosque. The store sells many kinds of fresh meats like chicken, beef and mutton, and it sources these meats in Korea. A kilogram (2 pounds) of chicken costs 6,500 won ($4.50), while a half kilogram of minced chicken costs 5,000 won. A kilogram of beef pieces cost 14,000 won and a half kilogram of minced beef costs 7,000 won.
The Foreign Food Mart located near the main Itaewon street also sells fresh meat, as well as various brands of frozen meat sourced from other countries.
Of course, there are many restaurants that students can also visit for Halal food. One famous example is Halal Guys –– a Halal food franchise that has a chain located near Hongik University. Other restaurants like Little India, Bombay Grill, HojiBobo and kebab places in Islam Street and Itaewon are great spots to dine at.
“In [Itaewon], you can just go to any restaurant and not have to worry about the food containing pork or something,” said Thaitrong.
However, for those who live far away from Itaewon, the hunt for Halal food can involve a long journey. Hamna Shahzad, an undergraduate student at Yonsei University, mentioned that she doesn’t shop at the Halal meat stores in Itaewon because they are expensive and too far away.
For those living far away, using online Halal meat stores is an alternative, with websites like Yes!Halal allowing customers to order meat. However, even these sites are not reliable.
“Most of the time [the online stores] are out of stock… and I think that the prices are a bit expensive,” said Thaitrong.
Halal meat is the most popular item Muslim students look for in Korea. However, Islam Street is also home to other stores that provide Muslim products, goods and services. The street is filled with stores selling Muslim religious and cultural items like abayas for both males and females, head coverings, prayer beads, prayer mats, miswak, incense, hookah products and essential oils.
One unique store in Islam Street is the Islamic Book Center owned by Sheikh Muneer Ahmad. This store is the only Islamic book store in Korea and sells many versions and translations of the Quran as well as other educational books available in Korean and English.
Ahmad stated that he came to Korea in 2001 and opened the store in 2006.
“After five to six years of my stay in Korea, I felt a need for an Islamic book store where Islamic products can be made available to the Muslim community who are living here while at the same time inviting Korean people to Islam,” said Ahmad.
While staying in Korea, Ahmad struggled to find meaningful books on Islam in the Korean language to give to his acquaintances or friends, which is why he took it as a challenge to found and maintain an Islamic books store in Korea and maybe spark an interest in some curious people.
Ahmad stated that most of the store’s visitors are “Muslim students who want to purchase a book about Islam to keep for themselves or to give as a gift to their non-Muslim friends.”
In the early days of the store, Ahmad mentioned that even though the students didn’t have a lot of money to spare on things other than necessities, they still purchased books. Later on, with the help of some connections, Ahmad was able to print some books in bulk and he can now give the students and other visitors books for free.
One of the appeals of the store is that it gives away the Quran and other informational books on Islam for free. There is a stall displaying free books on Islam and its basic teachings outside the store for passersby to pick up if they wish. Other book prices range from a minimum of about 5,000 won to about 30,000 won.
Ahmad also sources garments from Dubai, Saudi Arabia, the Kashmir, India and other European countries with high Muslim populations, prayer beads from Turkey and different translations of the Quran from many different countries.
Islam Street is home to many helpful, necessary and unique items for Muslims, making it a worthwhile place to visit.
Thaitrong likes the atmosphere of Islam Street and the sense of community he feels there as people refer to each other as “brother” or “sister.” He also mentioned how lively the place is, especially during Ramadan when many more people come to visit the mosque and the surrounding stores.
However, even though Islam Street may feel familiar to many Muslim students, factors such as the inconvenience of traveling there and the lack of a plethora of stores makes it hard to truly feel a sense of Muslim culture on the street. Shahzad feels like the street is more targeted at foreigners in general than Muslims, as it is located in the international neighborhood of Itaewon.
“I wish there were more Halal options near universities because a lot of Muslim foreigners come to Korea to study,” said Thaitrong. “At least having Halal food options in college cafeterias would be very nice. Also it would be good to have Halal restaurants and food stores around college campuses.”
While it may be inconvenient to visit, Islam Street stands as an enduring symbol of Muslim culture college students can connect with. Whether it is to find Halal meat, religious items like the Quran or prayer mats or to visit a restaurants with friends, the area can offer Muslim students a taste of home –– or something quite close to it.
However, what college students find more pressing is to find Halal food with convenience so that they can have a proper meal while dealing with the hectic struggles of college life. In this case, it would be helpful if there were more Halal food stores and restaurants around Seoul, especially near college campuses so that Muslim students can be well-equipped and happily continue their studies in Korea.
BY STUDENT REPORTER AAMNA SHEZAD