This essentially European sweet is the true fluff of fairy tales. Anyone who has watched Disney’s latest version of Cinderella would have spotted these swirls at the Prince’s Ball. Bringing them to us is 24-year old Afifah Rahman-Shepherd through The Little Meringue Company. I meet with her to find out more about her inspirations, and the challenges in bringing this quintessential English desert to Singaporean taste.
Dressed simply in a plain grey t-shirt and jeans, Afifah’s looks are deceiving to her colourful little creations. Nonetheless she is just as sweet as them, exuding warmth and passion in telling me about her new venture. Her crisp accent betells her English background, having been born in London to an English father and a Bangladeshi mother. She is no newbie to Singapore, though, having moved here when she was 13. With job stints at local cafes, Afifah is well-aware that breaking into the F&B industry in Singapore is no small feat.
How Julie Andrews missed these as one of her favourite things is a mystery. These colourful delicacies are pure joy even to look at, and can entice one out of a morose mood. Being a new fare to Singaporeans, meringues (pronounced “ma-rayngs”) warrant an introduction. Made mostly of egg whites and sugar, they are believed to have originated in seventeenth century England where they remain a staple sweet. Their recipe variations include the Italian, French and Swiss, along with the pavlova made in Australia and New Zealand. While generally appearing as swirling drops, meringues can be made into any shape the baker wants.
So how then did she risk the dive into it, that too with a concept as different to Singaporean taste as meringues?
My mother is a very good baker. So my sister and I have kind of always been in the kitchen baking; baking was never a challenge for me. Coming from the UK, where meringues are such a popular desert, especially in summer and the fact that it is summer all-year round here in Singapore, was kind of the inspiration behind producing meringues, and only meringues. And it had never been done, I don’t think Singaporeans are that well-acquainted with meringues.
Do you think there is a market for meringues here?
In general what I found is that things take off if they are very fad-dish. You know the whole cupcake movement, it was SO popular; people queue up for hours for their cupcakes. So I find that if the product fits the quota and fits what a Singaporean wants to eat for desert, then it would be really popular, really huge. It’s getting on the quest of that wave. It’s trying to up the ante of meringues when it’s an unknown commodity here. But I think there is that market, especially if you make it halal, it opens the doors to so many people in Singapore.
I, having pronounced “meringue” wrongly, have made it embarrassingly clear that I am not familiar with the sweet. I am the right Singaporean audience! I get down to the basics.
So what goes into the process of making a meringue?
The process of baking meringues varies a lot. There are three, four different methods of making a meringue. And different people let it dry for a certain amount of time after you bake them. The longer you leave it to dry, the more crumbly it is, so it dissolves in your mouth. I personally like it to be more chewy in the middle. That’s how I grew up knowing meringues. So ours have that really nice chewy sugary centre. And the outside kind of breaks away in your mouth and melts and dissolves. It’s very personal.
I look at the 2 colourful ‘rainbow bags’ she has given me, and she tells me about the flavours and their inspirations.
It sounds like you put a lot of love into them! What is a common feedback you get on your meringues?
Because they are very sensitive deserts, they are very affected by temperature. So I have tweaked the method to work in Singapore’s humid heat. They are affected by oil; no oil can go into the mixture. You have to clean the whisking bowl with lime or lime juice, as they are very, very temperamental. If you don’t put in love, you end up hating them! The one feedback we do get, and I am surprised about, is that they are very sweet.
Singaporeans, generally, don’t take too well to a very sweet taste. Could it be because they are not familiar with the concept of meringues?
Yes, I think the unfamiliarity is it. It’s been a wonderful learning experience trying to bring a foreign idea into Singapore. It takes a lot of adapting and listening and tweaking. Have you heard of Eton Mess (Me, sheepishly: “Ummm, no”)? It’s a desert made with crushed up meringues, whipped cream, and a compote of fresh fruits. They’re a little bit sugary and melted down, and you carefully stir them together. And it kind of softens the sweetness of the meringue with the cream and fruit (It sounds exquisite). So we’re trying to do these brown paper bags, where we’ve already crushed the meringues, and we give a recipe on the back for this Eton Mess.
How do you use the internet and social media to spread the word about something new to Singaporeans?
It’s bittersweet, the internet, and being able to use Facebook as a platform, because so many things are online these days. I was in New York recently, and I was reading some article that said that you can do everything online – from dry-cleaning to arranging gifts, your groceries, everything can be done online. So it’s nice that it helps humble start-ups, people like myself that just want to experiment and have a bit of fun and see where it goes. On the other hand, the competition is so much steeper.
In addition to private orders, The Little Meringue Company also supplies cafes like The Bravery Café, Penny University and The Craftsman’s Speciality Café. This remains a side project, though, and Afifah is keen to focus on her individual entity. Starting off with a physical shop proved too great a risk to take, but social media may have proven just the right launchpad.
One of the first places we approached was Pasar Bella at the Grand Stand; we were going to have a pop-up stall there. At first, it seemed too expensive, we were just starting out; it was before we launched the website officially. And it was too expensive and we had too many doubts and you know, there wasn’t that confidence. After we launched on Facebook and started getting orders, they wrote to us saying, “We HAVE to have you at Pasar Bella, we are flexible with rent. You have to do a pop-up there.”
So, I think it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed when you start, and take the rejections personally, but things have a way of working out.
What have you learnt about doing business?
One of the things I’m learning is HOW to do business. I’m a health major, and this is a very new venture for me. My dad is a very good advisor, but the whole weight of the business falls on me. Learning to do business here, communicating with buyers, marketing; it doesn’t necessarily come naturally to me. You have to have a thick skin when you go into a business. You’ve got to not take things personally. So when it comes to business, you have to quickly gauge whether it’s a good relationship or not. You can be nice, but at the end of the day, it’s your time, it’s your money, and it’s your investment. If it’s not worth it, it’s not worth it.
Despite the challenges, Afifah’s business appears to be flowering. Officially open for business for 2 months now, The Little Meringue Company has had up to 5 orders a week, with orders ranging from a gift bag to a big crate. Occasions range from weddings, where rose petals decorate tiers of the pink and white ‘The Turk’, to fairy-tale themed school events.
Undoubtedly, what makes The Little Meringue Company unique is its commodity – the meringue – but that isn’t all it takes. Its creators have a lot more to offer than just a unique commodity, with their mix of talent, creativity, passion, personality, the ability to take risks, bite the bullet and be flexible, while still having fun. Regardless of whether it can overtake the cupcake, I would say it’s a recipe for success in its own right.