I want to try the real thing in Sweden, now.
Google “Fika Cafe Singapore” and chances are, you’ll find polarizing reviews of this Singapore-owned Swedish restaurant. This, as well as some of my friends’ less-than-positive of their meals there, alienated me from this love child of a Singaporean Muslim lady and her Swedish husband. Yes, Fika Swedish Cafe & Bistro is halal-certified, which I thought was behind most of the restaurant’s hype. Although Singapore is firmly within the Muslim belt of Southeast Asia (Indonesia insists it’s a secular nation, but it is after all, home to one of the world’s largest population of Muslims), one might be hard pressed to find a decent halal establishment beyond the usual Malay and Indian Muslim stalls and restaurants. Some attribute this to the liberal attitudes of Singaporeans across all religions, especially when it comes to food, where even the most faithful of Muslim youths have tried a Chinese char siew bao (barbecued pork bun) at least once in their lives. Others take the view that it’s not always practical to mandate halal certifications across the board, particularly when Muslims are a minority in this secular island-city – resigning to non-halal restaurants when eating out, but making sure to order non-pork dishes.
“Halal” is Arabic for ‘permissible’, and encompasses not only food and drink, but matters of daily life as proscribed by Islamic law. Even the slaughter of animals for consumption is governed, and the ritual is quite similar to what Zoe Saldana’s character, Neytiri, does in James Cameron’s Avatar, dedicating the killing of animals to Eywa, Pandora’s mother goddess. Dhabihah, the method of slaughter, which can be undertaken by Muslims, Christians or Jews, is performed by invoking the name of God. It involves gently laying the animal down, and until the very last moment, slitting down the arteries along the neck with one swipe without damaging the nervous system. Only after the animal has died can blood be drained. This differs from the non-halal method which stuns the animal into immediate unconsciousness, before finally killing the animal, with the blood not necessarily drained. In the West particularly, Dhabihah has been accused of being unethical despite being considered religiously ethical as animal rights activists contend that with the nervous system intact, the body is in fact, aware that it’s being bled to death. On the other hand, there are ongoing critics who argue that non-halal abattoirs often skip slaughtering after the initial stunning, that the animal is still technically alive while slicing. It’s a contentious issue really, because when it comes to our role as apex predators of these farmyard animals, there’s no universal answer to the question, “Where does death begin?”
I do apologize if you’re considering going vegetarian after what you’ve read thus far. My intention isn’t to shock, or subtly send out some noble social message, but merely to inform. There has been a lot of panic recently regarding certain food scares – something we once thought was confined to the borders of some faraway place like China – sometimes stemming from the ignorance of the public about animal slaughtering for consumption. For example, there were fears after a diner at McDonald’s noticed that his McChicken fillet had white veins, which was quickly taken out of proportion largely in part due to the inattentive to the halal slaughter process.
Returning back to Fika, the concept, its niche, and the popularity of IKEA’s Swedish Meatballs quickly propelled Fika Swedish Cafe & Bistro beyond its cozy Nordic shack within the indie district of Arab Street and Kampong Glam to a burgeoning chain with an outlet in Millenia Walk that is inspired more by the H&M Singapore decor, rather than the brilliant form following function design decor that embodies Scandinavia, which was where my Mom and I decided to have our lunch while mulling my study options.
With my unemployment entering its sixth month despite having been a writer for 3 years has forced me to come to terms with the brutality and practicality of the Singapore job market. Despite all the willing references of my past employers and editorial heads, a tertiary academic qualification or lack of, my Archilles’ Heel, had reared its ugly head, rendering me terribly unsuitable for the countless positions I’ve interviewed for. For the idealist in me, it also became apparent, through these interviews, that what I thought was a glass ceiling that I couldn’t shatter was in fact, the limits of what the media industry (new and old) could do. I feel like in terms of being a writer in Singapore, and by extension, the limits of editor-in-chief, I feel like I’ve no more stories to tell.
Despite being the heat of lunchtime in the Marina Centre area, and with Miss Saigon next door playing to a full-house complete with a decent line outside, Fika Swedish Cafe & Bistro was curiously less than half-full. Even so, the service wasn’t as prompt nor as attentive as one might come to expect from a restaurant with so few diners, with the wait staff presenting a facial expression that one could only be described as “bewildered” as they came to receive us. They said little, but their body language was doing all the talking. It was almost as if they meant to say, “Huh? Really? Of all the restaurants in Millenia Walk, you had to pick us? Can’t you see we’re busy slowly arranging a long table of chairs and tables most likely for a big group that’s coming for dinner 5 hours later?” I paid them no attention – Fika Cafe & Bistro, according to most diner comments online on various food portals, is known for their unsatisfactory service. Sure, Scandinavian society can be ruthlessly egalitarian – like Germany without the bureaucratic level segregation – and favoritism of any social class, even towards the elites, could be considered taboo. I’d like to think that impartialness can exist by portraying an inviting yet professional attitude, not uniform disdain.
Even though I knew that Swedish food isn’t just poached salmons, Swedish meatballs and herring plates (basically, IKEA’s Swedish food selection), I was startled by the endless list of choices, but aspired to try something really very Swedish. Therefore, I ordered something so Swedish, it had a Swedish name, and even its English translation was still Swedish – Swedish Meatballs. However, the prices seemed a tad steep, and the value lunch specials didn’t really seem to offer anything that was particularly of value, or special either (no wonder the office crowds didn’t seem all that enticed). My Mom fluttered around the infinitely confusing menu with what the wait staff might have construed mostly as rhetorical questions. Questions to what the soup of the day and Blueberry Soup were were replied with a quick snaps of “Cream”, “Sour”. Not much of a help, really. She in the end, decided on a Potato Salad. At least the kitchen was prompt, and in no time, our meals were served.
The Meatballs looked fantastic. I love color in my food. That’s not saying I love colorful food, but there were the greens and reds of the salad; the glossy yellows of the baked potato; the earth-toned beige and browns of the meatballs and its sauce, and of course, who could forget the velvety maroon of the lingonberry sauce. Taste wise, there was definitely a homemade quality to the meatballs. The meatballs weren’t all perfectly the same shape, which one might assume that they were therefore not bought off-the-shelf; and they were perfectly imperfect either, like IKEA’s. There was a certain heartiness to it, literally, it was peppery, and well spiced with some notes of cardamon and cumin, and the combination of the sauce drizzled meatball with the lingonberry side was enriching.
I’ve to say though, on its own, without the lingonberry to add a certain berry sweetness, the meatballs were a tad dry. I could attribute it to the meatballs being comprised of beef with chicken, the latter of which tends to dry up faster; instead of beef with pork, but IKEA does a fair job of keeping the juices of the halal meatballs in just right. Overall, it was quite a fair interpretation, and I largely enjoyed it, although the portion I felt was too hefty. Rather than pricing it at SGD 19.90, they could do a smaller portion, and sell it at a lower price, and it’d be perfect.