With a Masters Degree in International Relations and an ambition to start an NGO in Malaysia, opening a Swedish “fika” café in Georgetown might not seem like the obvious choice for Erika Teng, none the less Erika have chosen this, as a way to inspire people in Malaysia and as her first step on the road to start an NGO.
In a narrow lane of moldy looking colonial shop houses in the UNESCO heritage neighborhood of Georgetown there is a house with a fresh painted facade. At first glance this looks like any other of the few newly painted houses on the street, but if you study the small painted frieze on the building you will see an elk and what appears to be blackberries. Here in an anglo-oriental atmosphere from the 19th century the 32 year old Swede Erika Teng is opening a Swedish themed café.
“I don’t want a trendy or hyped café. I want a café with a relaxed atmosphere, a café that welcomes everyone as they are. I want to make sure local people can afford to go to, so the prices won’t be too high,” Erika says.
This approach is in contrast to a lot of the cafés in photogenic Georgetown, where you will find cafes as the #SelfieCoffee, where baristas paint pictures and logos on the coffee foam. This is a city where a lot of newly opened cafés seem to focus on interior design and where the cakes tend to look better than they taste.
But Erika has another mission, even though the café is quite stylish with a row of retro window shutters decorating a wall, simplistic white surfaces and pinewood details, she wants people to come for the social experience rather than the visual. She wants people to come for the so called “fika” experience.
“Fika is usually one of the first words you learn when you come to Sweden, it means sitting down having a break together with friends, colleagues or family, having a cup of coffee and a cake, and then talk about things. It can be just ordinary things or political, and I really feel that in Sweden the coffee break, either with your friends or at work, is where things actually gets decided and evolves,” Erika says.
Pastry of change
The good talks that Erika knows from the Fika-tradition are very important to her. She wants the café to be more than a café. It should be a source of inspiration to Malaysians, by showcasing Swedish culture and values through posters and small cards with facts about Sweden. A fact like there is free education in Sweden, the percentage of men that goes on maternity leave and similar information that might surprise locals and show them that there are many ways to build a society.
“It’s not about showing that Sweden is the best country in the world, and that we do it the right way. I think every country should develop its own way. But it is important that young people feel that they can make a change or difference,” Erika says.
People starting to discuss gender issues or social inequality in Malaysia, rather than taking selfies, is not going to happen by itself. The main tool to secure this is to disconnect the Wi-Fi and have chat with people that are surprised that they can’t get online.
Erika knows that she, in many ways, are more privileged than the average Malay, but she hopes that a good talk can show locals that it is possible to do things in new ways and inspire them to become active players in the society rather than spectators.
Let’s talk cake
Well, coffee is coffee, and even though Erika plans to sell a European rosted fair trade version, the main focus is on the pastry.
Even though the menu will be constantly changing and the recipes adjusted a bit to suit the Malay taste, some things will stay the same. There will always be sugarfree options baked with natural sweeteners, some of the pastry will be baked using whole grain flour and of course classics like Semla or the Swedish cinnamon bun will stay on the menu throughout the year.
In addition to cakes, the café will serve traditional Swedish breakfast with homemade müesli youghurt, bread with cheeses, shrimp sandwich and possibly also a cold salmon sandwich.
The family gets it
Erika is married to Malay man with Chinese ancestry, and she has used his family to test what pastry they like and to see if the family approved of the “fika” concept. The family turned out to be a valuable source of feedback. Even though she felt they were being a little harsh in the beginning, her husband explained to her, that the criticism was actually a positive thing.
“The more they talk about it, the more they like it. Because then they think it can actually be improved to be really good. So they just want to hint you in the right direction. If it is hopeless they won’t say anything,” Erika says.
The family has also embraced the talking and togetherness of the traditional fika. Gathering the family is not a new thing, but traditionally they have done it over dinner and not a cup of coffee.
Erika opens her café named Fika on January the 17th and she hopes that this will just be the first step of a larger journey. It is located in Lorong Toh Aka number 20.
“When I moved here my main purpose was to do something for the society. I thought how do I start up a NGO in Malaysia from scratch, I need to know more about the place and to get in contact with people, and so I got the idea of opening up a café to start with and then it can evolve to more than just being a café,” Erika says.