The Halal Life

Words: Denise Irvine | Images: Ashlee DeCaires

When Hamilton chef Cherylene Fatupaito converted to Islam two-and-a-half years ago she knew it would pose some challenges for her career.

At that time, Cherylene was head chef at Mavis & Co, in Hamilton East. She loved her job, and the people she worked with, but Islamic dietary and spiritual requirements were impossible to observe in a mainstream cafe.

Cherylene says, “It became too difficult, there were tears. I was very happy at Mavis, but I’d made a different choice. This is a life-long commitment.” The sacrifice to leave Mavis was to honour her faith; she says it was hard but easy at the same time.

The best option for Cherylene was to run her own business, where she would be in total charge of the kitchen, the food and the philosophy. It would also enable her to have a prayer space where she and fellow Muslim customers could answer the Islamic call to prayer at prescribed times of the day.

So with the support of two investors, she took on the legendary Metropolis Caffe in Victoria Street’s southend. She rebranded it as Koko Cafe, refurbished the vintage premises, and brought fresh energy to a much-loved eatery that had become neglected of late.

At Koko, Cherylene walks the talk, following Islamic principles and also offering the hearty, generous food that this long-time city chef is known for. Her green Thai chicken curry has many admirers, as has her super-sized breakfast plate, The Abundance; her sweet treat Banoffee crepes; the Koko mushrooms, and more.

While the menu has Cherylene’s colourful, tasty stamp, there are subtle differences in keeping with Islamic dietary requirements. All ingredients are halal, an Arabic word meaning permitted, according to Islamic law. In reference to food, it is the dietary standard prescribed in the Quran, the Muslim scripture.

Pig flesh is forbidden so there is no bacon or pork at Koko, and Cherylene uses breakfast beef as a bacon substitute, a smoked brisket cut sourced from a halal supplier. All meat — lamb, chicken and beef — at the cafe is halal-slaughtered (see sidebar), and many ingredients are sourced from halal-certified suppliers. These include cheese, gelatine, pastry and other products that may contain fats, colouring or preservatives derived from animals.

Cherylene has researched ingredients and suppliers rigorously, she knows the brands to buy, and looks to halal-certifying organisations such as the Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) for guidance. “It becomes a habit and it becomes easier. I guarantee my food is halal; many of my customers are Muslim, and I want to give the Muslim community a safety net, a place where they can eat without worrying.”

Alcohol is forbidden for Muslims, so Koko is unlicensed. The cafe cannot serve, sell or store alcohol, or use fermented products that may contain even the smallest percentage of alcohol.

The lack of wine and beer sales cuts off a potential money-spinner for the business but it’s accepted with grace. Cherylene says she’d enjoyed a few “quiet ones” in earlier times, and when she became Muslim she wondered briefly how she’d ever watch rugby again without having a beer. She laughs: “I still love rugby.”

Religious requirements aside, Cherylene says Koko is like any other cafe. “I’m trying to get people through the door, and feed them well.”

Her heritage is Samoan and she was raised as a Mormon in Hamilton. She is a mum to three teenage sons, and a friend to many. She says her conversion to Islam was a mature decision, a pathway that has brought her joy and happiness.

She gives back to others through her work with the NISA Network Charitable Trust (Nurture, Inspire, Support, Assist), a Hamilton Muslim women’s organisation that aims to embrace diverse groups and foster strong communities.

NISA members are rostered to cook one night a week for The Serve, an organisation that provides hot meals for homeless people in Hamilton. During the Covid-19 lockdown, Cherylene cooked every night for The Serve from her Koko kitchen, calmly tackling these extraordinary circumstances, packing up umpteen meals of mac ’n cheese. At the same time, she was maintaining her own strict fast because it was the holy month of Ramadan when Muslims are forbidden to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset.

She says, “I’ve made these choices. But it’s not what we eat, it’s how we behave and portray ourselves. It’s about how we treat other people, and treat each other, always aiming to be peaceful and kind.”

Halal meat requirements

In a nutshell, halal meat practice has three main components: the animal is killed by hand, blessed by the slaughterman, and blood is drained immediately from the carcass. The Federation of Islamic Associations of New Zealand (FIANZ) does most of the halal certification in New Zealand. It says the Islamic term for halal-slaughtered animals is dhabihah, which has the following requirements under Islamic Law:

  • That the animal has been killed with a sharp knife
  • That its throat is cut ensuring the severance of the oesophagus and the jugular veins
  • That only Allah’s name is mentioned at the time of the slaughtering and no other name is associated

New Zealand has specific regulatory standards for halal meat production. These are administered by the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).

The Meat Industry Association (MIA) says it is compulsory for all animals to be stunned before commercial slaughter in New Zealand. Stunning ensures an immediate loss of consciousness to prevent animals from feeling any pain during the slaughter process.

The MIA says in New Zealand there is no exemption to the requirement for pre-slaughter stunning, unlike in some other countries. Halal slaughter requires that the animal dies from the “halal cut” to the throat, i.e., that the pre-slaughter stun is not powerful enough to kill the animal. So in premises that undertake halal slaughter in New Zealand, reversible electrical stunning is used to ensure that animals are rendered unconscious instantaneously and remain unconscious at the time of slaughter, therefore complying with both animal welfare and halal requirements.


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