Malaysian Kopitiam Culture Best Place To Experience Malaysia
The Malaysian Kopitiam culture is the centre of life for many Chinese locals in the community.
Popular to the young and old, and all in between, this is the place to best experience Malaysia – the Kopitiam are stalwarts of the country’s culinary history amid the proliferation of fancier restaurants, hipster cafes and trendy franchises.
The word Kopitiam (Coffee Shop) itself reflects the fusion of the word “kopi”, the Malay word for coffee, and “tiam” Hokkien word for shop.
The most authentic way to experience a slice of the local Malaysian lifestyle is to have at least a meal in one of the old-school coffee shops that dot almost every neighbourhood and the country’s central business districts.
You can be assured of a cheap hot breakfast and uniquely thick delicious Kopi, and even simple meals.
When I was a child, one precious memory was waking up early to follow my father to the Kopitiam in the mornings.
In the 1970s, these Malaysian Kopitiam are the bastion for elderly Chinese men to puff away in a thicket of smoke.
It was close to 8.00 am, just before the Kopitiam filled up with the breakfast crowd.
The Kopitiam is the centre of life for many Malaysian cities and their local neighbourhoods.
The setting of a local Kopitiam in George Town, Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur or any small towns has the same template or layout in a pre-war shophouse.
To every Malaysian, few things are as familiar as the corner shop Kopitiam.
As you enter into a Kopitiam and step out of the Malaysian heat, you might notice is that it’s still hot in the dim looking interior.
Most Kopitiam don’t have air conditioning.
You find slender wooden chairs and tables with metal legs fitted with white marble tops.
The best tables are directly under the roaring ceiling fans, which circulate the currents of warm air.
Though you feel the wind, it is still warm, and you will soon hail the drink stall assistant to take your orders.
Its ceramic coffee cups are traditional Kopitiam cups and saucers, squat, small and thick, specially designed to retain the drinks’ temperature.
You won’t find thin porcelain teacups here.
Malaysian Kopitiam – A Neighborhood Hangout
A Kopitiam is an integral part of the Malaysian-Chinese culture and social scene – where you get all the news, the juiciest gossips and political updates.
You can sit at the Kopitiam and catch the older men sitting around for hours while away their day drinking copious cups of coffee and reading the free Chinese daily.
Kopitiam Uncles come here for his daily fix of Malaysian sock pulled Kopi O Gao (strong black coffee)
When the Uncle is not lingering over his newspaper, he plays chess or makes political comments that nobody wants to hear.
I remember my father pulling me along as we made our way to the only available table in sight.
We went to Hai Onn Restaurant – not just any old Kopitiam in George Town.
Run by Hainanese, these Kopitiam have their trademark thick, rich Hainanese Butter Coffee and Hainanese Bread with an incredibly soft texture that is pillowy and stays soft and fresh.
The interiors of most Penang Kopitiam is almost the same.
Sometimes dingy facade might be underwhelming when you are across the road, trying to decide if you want to go in.
But make no mistake – the coffee, drinks, and Malaysian food are firmly in the highest echelons of deliciousness.
The classic Kopitiam has Worn whitewashed walls, floor tiles and a minimum of 5 feet tiled walls.
What Does A Kopitiam Sell?
In a typical Kopitiam, the owner manages the drink stall.
He sells coffee, soft drinks, toasts with eggs, steamed buns, pre-packed Nasi Lemak and local Kueh Mueh.
He rents out the stalls within the shop to hawkers to operate their stalls – mini kitchens selling noodles to rice dishes.
Kopitiam owners know that if the food is good, the customer will come.
Back in the day, you will find a small abacus next to the counter, which served as the cash register.
Malaysian Kopitiam Toasts and Eggs
The perfect Kopitian experience has Hainanese roots – a breakfast from colonial days of Toast Bread, Runny Eggs and Local Coffee.
The Kopitiam owner is a man wearing striped pyjama bottoms and a thin white sleeveless Pagoda brand T-shirt.
He is the only one operating the stove, a boiling cauldron of hot water and making endless cups of Kopi.
A standard breakfast order is crisp slices of toasted Hainanese Bread slathered with thick yellow butter and Kaya – an eggy coconut jam.
Some Kopitiam has steamed slices of kaya-topped bread. You need to check with the individual Kopitiam.
Whenever anyone ordered kaya toast, often grilled over hot burning ambers (before commercial electric toasters become affordable).
You will hear the rhythmic scraping noises removing the burned bits with the lid of a condensed milk cover.
The local Kopitiam coffee is always served hot in a cup and saucer.
Some Kopitiam serves their soft-boiled eggs on a saucer that you need to break.
Others will knock the watery soft-boiled eggs into a clear glass cup for you.
You get Soya Sauce and White Pepper to flavour the eggs.
Visitors find the thought of contrasting flavours and textures a little bewildering – especially dipping sweet eggy jam toasts into the warm goo of soft eggs slathers with the salty sweetness of soy sauce and zing of white pepper.
Locals eat their bread alternating between dipping the crisp toast in soft boiled eggs or thick black coffee.
Café Culture Vs Old School Malaysian Kopitiam
While Malaysia has a thriving Café Culture, there is a growth in the number of modern spiffy air-conditioned Kopitiam. These places are temperature cooler, and food served in a café environment.
These are popular and serve all the traditional fare, but usually lack the social context that is so characteristic for traditional Malaysian Kopitiam
The old school establishments are run by the hardworking Hainanese cooks who introduced the Western-style staple breakfast of cooked eggs and toast to Malaysians during the colonial era.
However, unlike any found in Western coffee shops, the coffee was the Hainanese cooks could often afford only cheap beans.
So, they enhanced the aroma of the coffee bean by wok-frying with sugar for that caramelized taste and butter (or lard) for that rich nutty, robust flavour.
The Kopitiam Coffee
Rich, dark and thick, the resulting basic coffee is black and filling.
It stains the ceramic cup and saucer and yellows your teeth.
The experiences are nothing short of a mind-boggling vernacular of drinking boiling coffee strained through a cloth sock!
The power pack drink is packed with teaspoons of sugar and sweet condensed milk and robust.
Some Malaysians will ask for a Kaw version, so thick that you can check the viscosity by pouring a spoonful back into the cup.
Within a minute, you will see a glistening film on coffee.
The local Kopi O without sugar (yes!) has a slightly greasy, bitter, faint salty element.
Of course, there are many variations of the standard Kopi O (black coffee).
You can request less sugar, add evaporated milk or even butter!
Malaysian Kopitiam Kopi
Traditional local coffee and highly caffeinated black coffee served without milk. It is also known as Nanyang coffee.
How to Order Kopi Like a Local In A Malaysian Kopitiam?
Unlike Malaysia’s other attractions, Kopitiam seems to have a secret way of ordering.
Here’s a way to decode the Coffee list to help you order like a local and blend in with the others.
Kopi – Coffee with sugar and condensed milk. (Coffee (80%) + condensed milk (20%)
Kopi O – Coffee with sugar only which is “black coffee” in layman’s term. (Coffee (90%) + sugar (10%)
Kopi O Kosong – Coffee without sugar or milk. (Coffee (100%)
Kopi O Poh – Diluted black coffee with sugar.
Kopi Kosong – Coffee with no sugar (“kosong” is zero in Malay).
Kopi O Kosong Gau – Strong brewed coffee without sugar or milk.
Kopi Gau – Strong brewed coffee with condensed milk. “Gau” means “rich” in Hokkien. (Thick coffee (80%) + condensed milk (20%)
Kopi Gau Gau – Extra strong brewed coffee with condensed milk.
Kopi Poh – Weak brewed coffee with condensed milk. The “poh” means “diluted” in Hokkien.
The “C” stands for “Carnation,” the longtime go-to brand for lighter evaporated milk in most Kopitiam.
Kopi C – Coffee with evaporated milk and sugar. (Coffee (75%) + evaporated milk (15%) + sugar (10%)
Kopi C Kosong – Coffee with evaporated milk but no sugar. The “kosong” means “nothing” in Malay. (Coffee (85%) + evaporated milk (15%)
Kopi Peng – Coffee with sugar and condensed milk over ice. (Coffee (80%) + condensed milk (20%) + ice cubes)
Kopi Cham or Yuan Yang – When you can decide between coffee and tea, you can order a Half-coffee, half-tea combination with sugar and condensed milk. (Coffee (80%) + condensed milk (10%) + evaporated milk (10%)
Butter Kopi – Coffee with butter in it. Bulletproof Coffee, aka butter coffee or keto coffee, is an energizing beverage made with quality fats.
Among the mythical Kopitiam experiences, the illusive Butter Kopi was something I heard of but is now very common among the Keto Diet fans.
It’s basically coffee with butter in it. Years ago, butter was expensive, so butter coffee became a symbol of wealth.
There was, indeed, something special here.
The Evolution of the Malaysian Kopitiam
Originally just small shophouses where the owner lived upstairs and served his coffee/tea with a few snacks, some Kopitiam in Malaysia have evolved into small restaurants.
There are still many of these old school places left in smaller towns that operate this way and
offer traditional kaya and Kopi.
Most have added a wider menu with food items like various noodle dishes or rice and dishes served from their own kitchen.
The community grows with the Kopitiam, and children go through adolescence into adulthood marked by Saturday morning breakfasts of soft-boiled eggs and ice milo.
Regular customers, usually nearby residents, become loyal friends.
Visitors, come and go.
Many like you and I remember the old places, the old faces and return for another cuppa of Kopi O and a chat to escape the midday heat and retreat to cooler confines of our memories growing up in small towns.
Our reason is simple.
As Malaysians, we want to see our Kopitiam culture stand proud and host all visitors no matter where they are coming from.
If you ever find yourself in Malaysia, try an “old skool Kopitiam” for an immersion into the Malaysian Chinese culture and heritage that is very much alive in Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and George Town, Penang.
And of course, enjoy some of the best local hawker food and a hot cuppa kopi while you’re there!
Have you been to a Kopitiam in Malaysia, or are you missing one? Do let us know in the comment section below if you have any anecdote to share.