KOPITIAM: THE FIRST CAFE

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Published on July 21, 2014 with No Comments

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A heritage revived.

Words ANIS RAMLI
Images UNCLE LIM’S CAFE

The core menu is basic: coffee, toast and half-boiled eggs. It’s a spread easily whipped up in minutes at home. Yet for many Malaysians, the satisfaction isn’t in the meal. It’s in the experience.

Kopitiam is a major pull for breakfast, tea or whenever.

The origins of kopitiam can be traced back to early 20th century with the Hainanese, who first came to Malaya to work as cooks or domestic helpers for British expats. As economic times changed, and the need for domestic helpers decreased, these Hainanese began opening coffeeshops, tapping into their culinary skills, and calling these shops ‘kopitiam’.

The word ‘kopitiam’ simply means ‘coffeeshop’. ‘Kopi’ is Malay for ‘coffee’ and ‘tiam’ is Hokkian for ‘shop’. Much like the word itself that reflects the country’s polyglot culture, the kopitiam represents the melting pot that defines Malaysia. Staple favourites offered were a Hainanese take on what was normally served in the British/European household. Roti bakar (toast) with kaya (coconut jam) and butter and half-boiled eggs are hybridised versions a British/Western breakfast. Others, like the Hainanese chicken chop with their sweet-and-sour sauce and the butter-roasted coffee, are clever interpretations of the European chops and brewed coffee.

Typically, a kopitiam is an open-aired, dining affair. Nowadays however, the revived kopitiam is fitted with air-conditioning for a more comfortable experience, as well as wi-fi. Pandering perhaps to the new smartphone and tablet-toting generation who fashion their coffee and connectivity experience to Starbucks and the like. Thankfully, the kopitiam menu remains authentic.

The prized possession of any kopitiam is undoubtedly the coffee. Thick, strong and deftly strained through a thick muslin sock cloth, each kopitiam would have its own specialty brew. At Killiney Kopitiam, established in the region in 1919, Columbian Arabica and Indonesian Robusta are blended and roasted Hainanese style for a brew that is thick and aromatic. Killiney’s coffee goes well with its impressive line-up of Katong Laksa and Mee Siam.

At Auntie Kopitiam in Kuala Selangor, the essential pairing of kaya toast with coffee served in thick porcelain cups is heavenly. The beans, like in other kopitiam, are proudly handroasted. For an extra ‘kick’, ask for beans roasted in butter. The resulting cup is a dark brew with a subtle salty flavour.

Nostalgia comes naturally at Uncle Lim kopitiam that takes the heritage of old coffeeshops and blends it with a modern cafe. Still, some traditions are retained. Their charcoal toasted bread, a long lost dish, has been revived. While tedious and time consuming in its preparation, the final result is an overall quality and a trip ‘back in time’ that is all well worth the wait. Bite into its crunchy outer crust before the eggy flavours of the kaya and butter ooze out.

Then, of course, there’s the age-old question of: how do you take the soft eggs? There’s no real science to it, and it often boils down to personal preference. Many crack them in the bowl and eat it with a spoon. But, keep an eye close on the older generation and you’ll see them slurping the warm goo from the saucer heartily before wiping off the remaining goodness with some roti bakar. White pepper and salty soy sauce mixed together is a must. Now that’s a kopitiam experience.

Royal Brunei Airlines flies Kuala Lumpur double daily.

 

HOW TO ORDER LIKE A LOCAL

Know your way around the kopitiam lingo:

Kopi: Coffee with sugar and condensed milk

Kopi C: Coffee with sugar and evaporated milk. (The “C” stands for “Carnation”, the go-to brand for most kopitiams)

Kopi kosong: Coffee with no sugar or milk (“kosong” is “zero” in Malay)

Kopi O: Black coffee with sugar

Kopi Cham: Coffee and tea mixed, with sugar and condensed milk

Peng: Add this to any of the above for ice, i.e. Kopi O Peng

Kaow: Add this to any of the above for extra strong coffee, i.e. Kopi C Kaow.

 

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