The Kopitiam Strikes Back

By Anthony Dylan

As you sit in your favourite Kopitiam, sipping your cup of coffee; you would notice that business has suddenly picked up. Along the road somewhere else, you would see new versions of the past being the latest interpretation of what a kopitiam would be like.

Forget about the last two years. Let us look at how the Kopitiams have taken the worst storms head on and adjusted themselves when all other retail or larger establishments kept on whining about business.

In Malaysia, kopitiams are a melting pot of activity. Everyone goes to a Kopitiam – the rich and the poor. There is no discrimination. Everyone waits for a seat and waits for your order. You sit on parity. The humble Kopitiam provides you with a choice.

As you observe the business, the Kopitiam is essentially a coffee shop selling various stall-based dishes and drinks. There are common traits in each one. The drink stall is controlled by the Kopitiam landlord. The drink stall would also serve you pau, soft boiled eggs, toasted bread with butter/margarine and kaya spread. This would then be complemented with selected stalls.

This would typically include the seven must haves of Char Kway Teow, Wantan Mee, Curry Mee, Pan Mee, Pork Noodles, Hor Fun and the Chicken Rice stalls. Another five would likely be mixed rice, vegetarian, mee jawa, nasi lemak and roti canai stalls. The 13-stall combination is the ideal if all are allowed just one dish. But in the context of space, most of them would be allowed to sell up to two types in a stall.

The current food court operators in shopping centres would also take the same formula. However, the reason why many food courts do not work or garner as much revenue in shopping centres is down to the inability to understand the customers. Many who go to Kopitiam do so because of it being convenient for variety and its value for money. Whilst those in shopping centres provide variety, they seemed to forget about value for money. It is an important aspect as the equation of price or portion to value varies on the type of dish.

We must not confuse ourselves with shops selling just one dish and taking a whole shop lot. Those selling pan mee or chicken rice or nasi kandar or roti canai or satti sorru (Indian Claypot) solely is not a Kopitiam. The Kopitiam today would also typically operate from 5am till 11am in places outside Klang Valley. Otherwise, it is safe to assume a 730am till 2pm trade hour for most. The popular stalls would normally run out by 11am on weekends. The rest of the day would remain open for limited stall offerings or closed. Closures like this would occur in suburban areas. Some Kopitiams would re-open for the evening and night run cook to order operations. These would include popular dishes like Cantonese Kway Teow, Hokkien Mee, Fried Rice and others.

Historically, the Hainanese were believed to have created this concept in the pre-Malaysia period. This is why you can typically find them in small towns like everywhere, even in Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang. The offerings in the heritage styled Kopitiam are the soft-boiled eggs, charcoal toasted homemade bread with butter or margarine and kaya; their cloth strained coffee made from home roasted coffee beans. The chicken chop would always appear and in some places, the Hailam Mee. These Original styled Kopitiams still go strong against the multi stall Kopitiams because of their offerings.

As Kopitiams evolved, so did their drinks. There have been many interesting drinks created to add to their typical kopi, Milo and Teh. Examples include the Milo and coffee marriage for the ‘Hor Ka Sai.’ There is also the ‘NesLo’ which is the same but with Nescafe and Milo; the ‘Cham’ which is coffee and tea. Some would also go as far as creating the three-layered tea and coffee where the palm or brown sugar forms one layer.

As you visit a Kopitiam today, you would notice that the business has swiftly embraced the situation at hand. The humble Kopitiam has managed to ride the storms of the pandemic. Nearly all the stalls in the Kopitiam accept e-wallet payments. The number of Kopitiams closing down due to the pandemic peaks is not significant. The resilience is due to the same formula of providing variety and value for money.

Today, we notice how the old ideas have evolved into the re-creation of nostalgia with a mix of Hong Kong styled or Ipoh styled offerings. We get a new batch offering brightly coloured shops with the addition of funky packaging. Egg tarts of distinctive styles have started to be the main attraction as with traditional biscuits. These are done in addition to the typical offering of nasi lemak, noodles and fried rice. The main difference though is that you are experiencing a Koptiam in the method of a single menu restaurant.

In short, today we have the luxury of experiencing three distinct types of Kopitiam. The Original Traditional one with a focused menu, a multi stalled kopitiam or a new styled Kopitiam which has a menu of all the traditional favourites. The Kopitiam of three generations are going strong. Most still use the Liberica beans for their coffee, whilst some would use a mix of Robusta and Arabica mixed in the roasting. The Kopitiam has struck back with the latest generation. In saying that, do Google for the best Kopitiam in your area. The closest types for the Traditional Original ones are available in Sin Kok Thye and Chong Kok Kopitiam.

So, do consider looking out for unique Kopitiams and enjoy the experience. Now, where can I get ‘Hor Ka Sai’ here as this was one concocted in Taiping, Perak?