When Kopitiam is More than Food

I could imagine waking up early in the morning, cycles to the nearby kopitiam,  flipping through the morning papers and chatting with the friends over a cup of coffee at the neighbourhood kopitiam, but as a city boy, morning life is often waking up in the midst of traffic jams to work without a good breakfast. Kopitiam is more than a breakfast here, it is a story of food reflecting the community and culture of the Malaysian chinese here where it’s getting lesser acknowledged by the younger generations these days.

Commonly found in Singapore and Malaysia, the word KOPI is Malay for Coffee (well it’s altered from Portuguese) and TIAM is the hokkien dialect word for shop. Typical menu is basically illustrated as above..Half Boiled Eggs, Toast and Kaya.. Coffee Tea and Milo.


The few times that i really step into a traditional coffee shop is when i head back to my mom’s hometown Sitiawan or during my studying years in Penang where there are many more kopitiam is still surviving in their heritage Chinese shophouses that has made it even more special.  When you ask a person to imagine kopitiam, normally it’s easily identified with the interior designing of the place, marble table, wooden chairs, the shop title name, and with some wooden blinds around it. And typically coffee is served in the unique Chinese coffee cups as illustrated above (in which not spotted in many modern kopitiams i believe).

Local identity arises when coffee became a pride in some places… as Kopitiam mostly exist in chinese populated area such as Perak, Penang, KL and Johor then.. you hear white coffee being a local pride, from Georgetown, to Ipoh, to Kluang. And slowly eventually today in the modern context you can see different franchise of coffee shops, unfortunately i am no Coffee expert to talk more about coffee origins of different places.. Another basic in the typical breakfast will be half boiled egg, accompanied by soy sauce and pepper, which could go with bread as well.


But what I am really attracted with kopitiam isn’t the great taste behind the food but what does it mean behind the food over the decades of Malaysian Chinese cultural habits. What binds people to a kopitiam is really, often the shop itself, the people around the shop, I suppose that the factor of people plays greater than food even at some point, it’s a story on how food gather people together in the morning before going off for work. A daily healthy morning social chat over a cup of coffee, a laughter session accompanied by the great taste of friendship. This is what i notice when people try to document on the top 10 nicest kopitiam spots in Malaysia but many defended for their own choices because they have a unique bonding or nostalgic moments with the shop. It’s a social landmark in the neighborhood, in a nutshell.

This is taken at Toh Soon Cafe near Lebuh Chulia, Georgetown Penang. Meals are still being served traditionally here in a way that the toast is still done by the heat from charcoal instead of today’s toaster, *note the guy on the bottom left corner. Georgetown has many places like this fortunately, thanks to the Chinese heritage shophouses that preserve locations and people to continue their business. There are good original kopitiams in KL of course too, but I am more fond of penang’s.


 And as these business started since the decades ago until when globalization happens, KL became the center of rapid growth, State to state migration happens, then some kopitiam is facing crisis as people are often wanting to try a place that offer better service and new taste of food. Then here comes the rise of franchises, I would say that in the past 5 years i could see the sudden rise of many modern kopitiams around Kuala Lumpur. There are so many to be named, OldTown, Georgetown, Papparich, Rotibakar, etcetc.  Some have extended menus where local breakfast, lunch and dinner meals are served. To tap into the sizable Muslim market, these kopitiams usually serve food that is halal (permissible for consumption by Muslims) unlike the traditional shophouse kopitiams.


Then you could see that most of the franchise business you see that the interior designing of it tried to follow the original kopitiam setting as far as possible, wooden chairs, and some lighting and wooden shelves.. And you have wifi services for free. and as a franchise business again, you are earning for profit, you have business principles behind, you have people that makes the experience differences here, they can be a foreign worker serving you, or anyone, but they aren’t those kopitiam uncle auntie back in the old days that would catch up with you with a word or two. yes i know it’s the city life in general that made it so, it’s how social habits works in different places, but it’s very obvious what I am trying to say that kopitiam we find in cities today can’t define what kopitiam is like back in the old days or some of the rare ones you find in your hometown out of Kuala Lumpur today!

So when was the last time you really entered a kopitiam? Get some friends out in the morning, get some coffee and toast and cheer for the new day!

That’s more something like it isn’t it? 😉