Recollections of old coffee shop culture in 20th century Malaysia replete with local favorites like nasi lemak, roti canai, kopi-o, etc.
It’s market day! Mom and Dad liked to be up early to get to the market just as the fresh vegetables and fish arrived. Since we were too little to go to school, my brother and I got to tag along. The sisters either went to school or had homework to do. Dad would drop Mom off near the fruit stands where the market periphery began. He would then take us to one of his favorite Chinese coffee shops (Kopitiam in Hokkien) for breakfast.
When we say “coffee shop” in Malaysia, we are not talking about a coffee specialty store like people in the west know it today. It is more like a food court with all kinds of individual food stands under one roof. The anchor tenant or proprietor would sell beverages ranging from coffee to Guinness Stout. The food sellers arrange themselves around the edge of the coffee shop, usually a corner shop lot.
In those days, most coffee shops had circular marble-topped tables and wooden chairs with circular seats. These were suitably called “Kopitiam tables and chairs”.
The typical coffee shop wall is dominated by a huge angled mirror and some beer posters with sultry beauties from Anchor, Tiger, and Carlsberg. The mirror is normally installed and inscribed with a message from well wishers during the coffee shop’s opening.
The proprietor sits behind a counter with the shop altar dedicated to Guan Gong (Chinese God of War) close by. A Chinese calendar hangs on the wall behind him. The Rediffusion box blared out Chinese soap opera, news in one of the Chinese dialects, and the all-important Turf Club race results of the day. He somehow looked somewhat formidable entrenched behind his counter.
Kopitiam breakfast was good bonding time for Dad and his two sons. Dad would call for “kopi-o” (thick black coffee with lots of sugar) and it would come in this distinctive coffee cup and saucer. Since there were two of us boys, the “Kopitiam Ah Bah” (serving boy, normally one of the sons of the proprietor) knew enough to bring an additional saucer. Dad would quietly poured some coffee into the saucers, and gave one each to us. He then drank the rest from his cup. I always thought that the saucer was meant for kids while the cup was reserved for adults.
The ritual of ordering food at the coffee shop was interesting. Dad would walk up to each of the sellers and placed his order, without telling them where he sat. Somehow they could keep track of him and the food always arrived in correct order. In those days, they only collected money after one ate as no one would walk away without ever paying. Trust was premium. The only guy who came to ask for our order where we sat was the previously mentioned “Kopitiam Ah Bah”. Once he hears our order, he announces it to the guy in the kitchen in a loud sing song voice, “Kopi Ooooohhh!”
Dad almost always had the same breakfast, toasted Chinese bread with Half Boiled Eggs. In that part of the world, we used soy sauce, not salt for the egg with lots of pepper. Interestingly, this dish is ordered from the Kopitiam, not the food sellers.
As for me and my brother, we tried all kinds of noodles. My favorite was dry Wonton Noodles. I always kept the Wontons till the very end, while slurping in the large pile of egg noodles with great relish. The other breakfast favorite was Roti Canai. As a nod to the more casual cultural interaction of yesteryear, some Chinese coffee shops had an Indian Muslim vendor selling roti canai at one corner of the shop. His flat metal pan would turn out one piece of roti after another. Some Chinese patrons who could not take the spicy curry dip would opt for condense milk or sugar instead.
One day when I was about four years old, my Dad introduced me to the most delicious breakfast in the whole wide world, Nasi Lemak Bungkus. It was on the unfortunate occasion of my first visit to the dentist at the district hospital. Too much rock candy had caused my baby teeth to fall asunder and so it was off to see the Tooth Man.
Before the frightful experience, Dad took me to a Malay version of the coffee shop, called a warung just outside the hospital under a huge angsana tree (Flame of the Forest). I could never forget the wonderful aroma of coconut rice wrapped in banana leaf, and the shrimp sambal. Even at that age, I already had my spice taste buds all fired up. It was to be a culinary love affair that has lasted a lifetime. And spicy Nasi Lemak Bungkus is best taken with, you guessed it, “kopi-o”.
In the warung version of enjoying coffee or more likely teh tarik (frothy tea with condensed milk), the setup is a semi-permanent structure (like a tent anchored to a large tree trunk) or a proper stall situated by the roadside. The tables and chairs are just foldable ones arranged café style out in the open. These tend to be breakfast or supper joints serving some of the cheapest but tastiest foods in Malaysia. The usual food fare are Nasi Lemak, Mee Siam (spicy fried vermicelli), kerang rebus (boiled cockles), and the late night favorite, sup kambing (mutton soup). I love the simple pleasures of warung food taken with frothy tea.
As I grew older, I became a regular at some coffee shop, first in Penang, and later on in Kuala Lumpur. The same ritual of ordering food and getting that thick black coffee was universal and a comforting familiarity. Whether it was living on a shoe string budget in my student days, taking my first date out for some good inexpensive food, or grabbing a quick meal with our new baby in tow, the coffee shop was always a reliable option. I thought that these places will always be part of the old country’s scenery. On this last count, I am sadly mistaken.
In my recent visits back to Malaysia, I noticed that many old coffee shops in town centers have been shuttered. The old clientele have gone away or that part of the city is no longer the center of commerce. In the new suburbs, there are fewer bona fide Kopitiam. There are more Western style fast food chains. The surviving joints lack the casual, easygoing charm of the ones from yesteryear.
The younger generation does prefer the air-conditioned interior and carefully designed décor of upscale restaurants. They complain that the old coffee shop setup is hot and noisy. Some coffee shops have resorted to glass walls with air conditioning. This probably helps business but the old ambience is gone. Ah, the price of progress.