Food is a fully-realised culture of its own. Its trends, icons and movements, across the world and time, inspire veneration but are also forgotten just as quickly. But when food is built around and for a community, combined with atmosphere and leaving space for variability, you might have something that transcends generations.
In Malaysia, the humble kopitiam has achieved just that. To every Malaysian, few things are as immediately familiar.
Found all across Malaysia and Singapore, kopitiams, an Anglicised portmanteau for coffee shops, might be commonplace, and not much to look at. But they have been stalwarts of the country’s culinary history, maintaining its presence amid the proliferation of fancier restaurants, hipster cafes and trendy franchises.
It’s sparse, sometimes dingy facade might be underwhelming in juxtaposition with gleaming, Michelin-starred newcomers, but make no mistake. The food and drinks are firmly in the highest echelons of deliciousness.
As any foodie knows, a queue usually indicates a worthy gastronomic experience. But kopitiams have a reliability that locals always trust. Some might be better than others, but a guarantee of satisfaction comes with every kopitiam. Teh tarik and kaya (coconut jam) toast immediately reassure once you sink your teeth into their familiar texture and taste.
But are there other elements of a kopitiam that make it such a distinctive institution?
As you enter into a kopitiam and out of the Malaysian heat, the first thing you might notice is that it’s still hot. Most kopitiams, having been around for decades, don’t have air conditioning. Roaring fans ventilate with currents of warm air. Though you feel the wind, you’re soon hailing the drink stall assistant to take your orders.
Another noticeable quality is that a kopitiam’s layout is almost a template. You have the primary stalls set up at the entrance, like a gastronomic portal into the tables within. For larger, open-air layouts, the food stalls line up against one side of the compound, leaving the rest of the space to accommodate hungry customers.
The tables continue outside, under sloping awnings. A section of these tables usually has empty condensed milk cans upon them, rusty and filled with a little water. These are the makeshift ashtrays of the smoking section, a must-have for the elderly gentlemen who fill up on beer, served in ice-filled buckets, as the sun sets.
Snuggled into a corner is the mandatory drinks stall, usually managed by an uncle or auntie with a booming voice. Serving coffee, tea, beer and soft drinks, every kopitiam drink stall operator will know the lingo to your preferred beverage.
Kopi C siew dai: black coffee with condensed milk, easy on the sugar. Diao yu: tea made with a tea bag instead of their standard brew. A solid grasp of the vocabulary unlocks the more curious items on the menu. As your order is yelled over above the cacophony, table conversation resumes in anticipation of the goodness to come.
Lest we forget, a kopitiam’s reputation is also enhanced by the quality of a particular drink: Milo. Preparing this chocolate-malt concoction is all about proportions. And because everything goes by feel, the combination of sugar, milo powder, condensed milk and hot water varies across cities and neighbourhoods.
Now to the star of the show. The kopitiam’s catwalk of food stalls, all viewable from your table so you can decide. Or, you can take a stroll around the tables and see what others are eating, looking for something that stirs your vision and your appetite.
Having given your order, watching the chef prepare your food through the stall’s glass front, is to see experienced gourmands at work. Finesse, muscle memory and a keen sixth sense of agar-agar, or intuitive feeling, combine to create your meal.
And the choices of meals are pretty extensive, enough for every day of the week. From laksa to nasi lemak, mee siam to vegetable rolls, or popiah, the tastes vary but remain simple. The drink stall manages most food standards, usually being run by the owner of the kopitiam. They know that if the food is good, the people will come.
And the people do come. Regular customers, usually nearby residents, become loyal friends. Children go through adolescence into adulthood fed by Saturday morning breakfasts of soft-boiled eggs and ice milo. Kopitiams became a gathering place for the community, simply by being there. It’s a concept that transcends geography, as the Kopitiam in New York’s Chinatown demonstrates. It’s why so many Malaysian overseas always think of their kopitiam meals with homesick longing.
But things have inevitably changed. As more iterations of air-conditioned, supermarket-adjacent food courts spring up, the argument over what makes an authentic kopitiam will continue to be enveloped by myth and ambiguity.
And maybe that’s not important. Maybe, as long as there is a place where uncles can chill over beers, and conversations can be had over kopi. Where neighbours can gossip, and children can buy drinks on the way home from school. Where people buy cheap, delicious food regardless of who they are or what they’re wearing. Maybe, that’s the essence of the kopitiam.
Featured images: Eating Asia and Miss Tam Chaik