Singapore restaurateurs take on halal foreign cuisine

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SINGAPORE: A bigger and hungrier market, a new challenge and camaraderie over food – these are the main reasons why some restaurateurs in Singapore have recently sunk their teeth into the halal scene. Their speciality? Cuisines not traditionally prepared the halal (the Arabic word for permissible) way.

In the past year alone, at least four companies have opened halal restaurants in Singapore, each offering a different cuisine. Swedish restaurant Fika introduced European bakery Konditori. British cafe The Mad Sailors opened in nearby Haji Lane at around the same time, following its Mexican brother Afterwit.

In February, local entertainer Sheikh Haikel and partner Bernie Tay threw open the doors to Fatpapas, a soon-to-be halal-certified version of the latter’s Fatboy’s burger joint. A few weeks later, popular halal Japanese restaurant The Ramen Stall launched The Dim Sum Place just next door.

HUNGRY FOR OPTIONS

Deeper pockets have led to the want for more options.

“Fast food was a luxury for me growing up,” said Mr Mustaffa Kamal, co-founder of a trio of halal concept cafes in Kampong Glam. “Students today can afford to spend, say S$50 on breakfast.”

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The menu at Afterwit includes burritos, tacos, quesadillas and tortilla pizzas. (Photo: Afterwit’s Facebook page)

“But then the problem became, where could they spend their money? How often can you go to Carousel?” he added, referring to Royal Plaza on Scotts’ popular halal international buffet.

Singaporeans are also “very open to trying new things”, said Ms Tasneem Noor, who started Fika with her Swedish husband Joakim Smidhagen in 2009 and is preparing for the launch of a new ice-cream shop. “When a new place opens, we want to go and try. We plan what to have for dinner while we’re having breakfast.

“In Sweden, food is more of a necessity. In Singapore, it’s a communal thing. Dinner is a big event for many people.”

Mr Mustaffa attributes the enthusiasm among the Muslim community here to the “forbidden fruit phenomenon”.

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Mr Mustaffa Kamal (left) and Mr Calvin Seah (right) standing in front of their British-themed cafe on Haji Lane. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

“When Swenson’s and McDonald’s were not halal, people were curious about them. Like, ‘what is this thing that my non-Muslim friends are eating?’ As soon as the forbidden fruit becomes permissible, people pounce on it.”

As the young and more adventurous get older, the market has “unshackled”, said Mr Tay, whose eight-year-old Fatboy’s brand has gone regional. “Businesses are more aware that Muslims are willing to come and taste the food – as long as it’s halal. And there’s a huge market.

“SAME GREAT TASTE”

While a halal restaurant essentially caters to the dietary needs of certain groups, businesses naturally have other customers to think about as well.

Working Title, for example, sees an even ratio of Muslim and non-Muslim patrons. And with all their restaurants, including The Mad Sailors and Afterwit located in the touristy Kampong Glam area, The Black Hole Group has the bar set high.

Said Mr Mustaffa: “The Mad Sailors has to cater not just for the Muslims and even non-Muslims who don’t know what pork tastes like, but also for those who come from the land of beer-battered fish and chips. We have to impress them, too with our version of the fish and chips.

“It’s especially difficult to sell the vibe to them,” he added. “Alcohol is big in many of the cultures we draw influence from. If you call yourself a Mexican place, but you don’t sell Mexican beer, you’re going to get some raised eyebrows. When people come into The Mad Sailors, they ask, ‘how can you sell yourself as a British pub when there’s no beer?’

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“So we have to prove ourselves through food”, which comes with a unique set of challenges, he said.

Mr Mustaffa’s partner Calvin Seah said he sees many customers ordering bacon and sausage expecting it to taste like pork.

“Obviously the taste is different,” said Seah. “That’s been one of my biggest challenges – sourcing for items like sausage. It’s really hard to get good halal sausage.”

This resurfaces the age-old question: can the halal version of traditionally non-halal food taste as good?

“It’s possible, but very difficult,” Mr Sheikh Haikel told Channel NewsAsia. “I told Bernie, ‘if you can get it to taste exactly like Fatboy’s, we’ve got something. Otherwise, we’re just a place that Haikel and Bernie started’.

“I told him I want the original.”

Mr Tay said he “didn’t have much of a problem” with the Wimpy, a barbecued bacon cheeseburger he said is a signature of most burger joints.

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The country fried Sheikh, an off-the-menu item at Fatpapas. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

“We just had to switch the bacon to turkey. Most of the ingredients we put into our barbecue sauce were already halal,” he said.

Other items, like the Swiss Shroom and Bleu Peppercorn still remain a challenge to recreate, simply because quality Swiss cheese, for example, does not come halal-certified.

“A lot of things are actually halal in theory, but in Singapore, to be recognised as halal the producer or manufacturer has to be certified as such,” said Tay.

“Simple things like pepper, chilli powder… seasoning mainly, can be a challenge,” Tay said. “Sometimes pig bacon is used to season food to help give it a smoky flavour. We have to use something else to achieve the same effect. There are many things we can use actually, like liquid smoke, but those things are not halal.

“So we engineer new stock. We experiment with our team of chefs, then present the results to our taste-testers – mainly Haikel,” he laughed.

“So while at the moment there are some dishes we can’t serve at Fatpapas, we will get there,” Tay added. “If your specialty is ramen, however, that is a bit unlucky.”

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The Ramen Stall sells 2,000 bowls of volcano ramen a month. (Photo: The Ramen Stall’s Facebook page)

Ramen is a noodle soup prepared in various styles according to the Japanese region in which it is made. One of the most highly sought-after is tonkotsu ramen, whose broth and toppings consist of pork, hence the common misconception that ramen cannot be halal. But it can be, and it is at The Ramen Stall, where there are eight types of ramen on the menu.

“The pork-based ramen broth is very famous, but ramen is not always made of pork,” said Mr Bryant Guan, head of marketing communications. “There’s ramen base made with soya and there’s also a clear base. Other than the fact that we don’t do pork ramen, we’re committed to making it taste as good, like converting Ramen House to a halal restaurant.

“We work with a chicken base and stick to our signature method of boiling the meat and bones for 30 hours. The rich flavour comes from the chicken and the vegetables,” he added.

Fika’s approach, said Ms Tasneem, was more straightforward.

“There’s really not much difference between halal food and Swedish food. We didn’t have to change any authentic recipes. It’s just the meat. Even meatballs, the traditional recipe has no pork.

“If the dishes do have pork in their original recipe, we just don’t make it. We don’t do substitutions,” she said.

RECIPE FOR HARMONY

Most of the restaurants Channel NewsAsia spoke to said the challenges of introducing foreign foods to the halal market, especially as a non-Muslim, are significant.

“Of course in this market there are many more things to think about, like how pets are not allowed and neither are outside food and drinks,” said Mr Guan.

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Bandung latte served at Working Title, one of The Black Hole Group’s three cafes in Kampong Glam. (Photo: Working Title’s Facebook page)

Mr Seah said he is not a religious person, but is “open-minded” about the concept. “People have their beliefs – I respect that,” he said.

“I don’t play the fool,” he added. “I make an effort to do the research, to learn from others. It is daunting, especially when you go online and read the conversations going on in the Facebook communities. But this is how I learn about their strict standards. They know when you’ve slipped up.”

He believes it is “all part of the job”.

“I enjoy the challenge,” he said. “Exploring a new cuisine means you have to go off the beaten track to find suppliers. When I get one that provides, say chilled New Zealand beef cheeks, I feel a strong sense of accomplishment.”

Mr Tay, whose popular Fatboy’s brand has been described as “anti-establishment”, said the food may be different, but the experience has to still match the beliefs and personality of the community.

“Fatboy’s always had a bit of an attitude – we are ‘in your face’. But at Fatpapas, it’s more family-oriented, a restaurant for the people,” he said, looking round at the 48-seater American diner-styled restaurant.

“In here we tend to be a bit more sensitive. I pay special attention to how members of staff dress, what music we play and the intonation we use when we talk to our customers,” he added.

Here his partner Sheikh Haikel pitched in. “Bernie always respected my beliefs,” he said. “He never said things like ‘Just eat at Fatboy’s lah, bro. The meat is already halal’. Instead, he said, ‘okay, bro. Let’s make it halal for you’”.

“I believe that if everyone understands each other like this, we can continue to live together harmoniously,” said Mr Haikel, who is well-known in the local rap and entertainment scene. “It’s like hip hop – when we go on stage, we don’t look at each other as Malay or Indian or Chinese.

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Self-proclaimed “fat papas” Bernie Tay (left) and Sheikh Haikel (right) at their burger joint on Bali Lane. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

Mr Guan also noted that bonding was an important aspect of Muslim culture.

“They want to connect during their free time,” he said. “They travel together. At dinner, we always see families of five or six gathering at our restaurant.”

With little experience with the culture, The Ramen Stall employed the help of celebrity chef Mel Dean, formerly from the Singapore Halal Culinary Federation.

The Ramen Stall first opened not long before the start of the holy month of Ramadan in 2016. On Mr Mel’s advice, Mr Guan said they moved their late-night hours to 6pm to 6am to cater to those dining out for their iftar (fast breaking) and sahur (pre-dawn) meals.

BRAVE “NEW WORLD”

Having stepped into and gained some success in what may be described as new territory, these restaurateurs have some advice for those who might want to have a taste.

Mr Tay, who said it took him six months to a year to study the market and create the concept, said people have been “afraid to experiment” because it is a process that “requires looking into detail”.

“People tend to be put off by having to look at 14 pages of MUIS requirements,” he said. “But it’s worth it.”

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Rendang chee cheong fun at The Dim Sum Place. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

Mr Guan also said restaurants should go beyond experimenting with halal ingredients for classic dishes and come up with new ones.

“In business, you must have the guts to try new things, step out of your comfort zone,” he said, adding that when he first started researching the market, he explored the city with new eyes, accompanied by Chef Mel. Since then, the company has been encouraging their chefs to “step out and try new things, mix this and that”.

Some of The Dim Sum Place’s menu items are a result of this “rojak” method – the birth of what Mr Guan called the “new world” cuisine, which combines the various cultures into something uniquely Singaporean.

Dishes such as the rendang chee cheong fun are cooked up through collaborations between the restaurant’s Muslim chefs, as well as chefs brought in from their restaurant in Guangzhou.

At the same time, operations director Duxbury Low said he has been training the floor staff to be able to engage with customers, especially when introducing dishes new to them like roast peking duck, which The Dim Sum Place serves with sugar, crushed peanut and mustard on the side.

He said he wants customers to get the “Michelin star experience” of having their food explained to them, something he feels restaurants could do more of.

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Education is also one of the motivations of Fika’s founding couple. Passionate about familiarising the community with Swedish food, the family is very careful about authenticity.

“You know how you go to a Singaporean restaurant in a foreign country and laugh at the ‘Singapore noodles’? We don’t want a Swedish person to come to our shop and do that,” said Ms Tasneem.

“Whatever Joakim had at his mother’s kitchen, we make it at Fika. For example, we would never serve meatballs with rice.

“Even during the hard times when you just want to sell anything to make money, we don’t do things like salted egg yolk or ondeh-ondeh. Because there’s no such thing in Sweden.”
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