Does the “Kopi O Kau” today still taste as authentic as the good old times? How many truly authentic Kopitiams still exist today? Join us as we walk down memory lane to find out more about the Kopitiam culture of our country and why it is still close to our hearts after so many decades.
I used to hear my father calling out loud, “Kopi O Kau” (strong brewed coffee) to the waiter every time he visited the kopitiam (coffee shop) when I was young. With three cups of “Kopi O Kau” daily, it is not surprising my 82-year old father is known as the “Kopi O King” among his friends. Today, he is probably one of the old generation of coffee connoisseurs who still prefer the authentic black coffee over the frothy-textured one.
“I still love the original black Kopi O Kau compared to what you young people love. Latte, cappuccino and now what… frappuccino?” he teased me as I told him I will be whipping up a story on kopitiam culture.
Sharing his sentiment is Lee Chew Boey who manages the renowned Sin Hoy How Kopitiam in Kuala Lumpur. “Your father is right. My old customers love the original black coffee while the younger ones will go for the frothy coffee or cappuccino,” she says.
Sin Hoy How Kopitiam was established in 1937 by her father, Lee Kah Kiat and it is now one of the few surviving authentic kopitiams in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. After taking a sip of the kopitiam’s signature drink, “Kopi O Kau”, I must admit it is the finest full-bodied smooth coffee
I have ever tasted. There is no better way to unlock the story of kopitiam with Lee Chew Boey while enjoying the intoxicating aroma and real taste of “Kopi O Kau” itself.
Kopitiam is part of the rich culture and history of Malaysia. Waking up to a cup of coffee with a toast of kaya and butter, and half-boiled eggs has been the daily morning ritual of Malaysians everywhere.
The history of kopitiam can be traced back in the late 18th century with the influx of Chinese immigrants to Malaya. As they mingled with the locals and the Europeans, they gradually developed a love for coffee and thus, kopitiam was born.
Soon, kopitiams flourished and became the place for the community to hang out, from playing chess to spending hours chit-chatting about politics and other issues.
With more foreign coffee franchises such as Starbucks, Coffee Bean and others making their presence felt, one would have easily thought the kopitiams will not survive.
But today, the old kopitiams are given a new lease of life, even turning into franchises like Old Town White Coffee, Kluang Station, Uncle Lim’s Café and many more.
For Sin Hoy How Kopitiam, it still preserves its coffee authenticity. “We still use the old boiler and flannel sock to make our coffee. In fact, we still have our own brand of coffee powder. Best of all, our kopitiam is family-run and not another franchise,” Lee Chew Boey says with a proud smile.
In the past, kopitiams sourced raw coffee beans from Klang but due to higher cost today, they get their coffee beans supply from Indonesia.
Lee Chew Boey claims, “In the early days, we processed the raw coffee beans at the mill near our shop. We have our own formula to roast the beans. The right amount of sugar and butter is added and blended with the beans and we would then roast them all.”
Another renowned kopitiam in Kuala Lumpur, Yut Kee Restaurant, has stopped processing its own coffee but Mervyn Lee, the third generation owner could recall how the beans were processed.
“After roasting the beans, we would place them on a long tray and dry them using a big blower. In those days, the tray was really long. I remember we used to do it once or twice in three weeks.”
Yut Kee Restaurant was set up in 1928 by Lee Tai Yik. Today, it is run by the grandson, Mervyn Lee. The restaurant still serves its usual staple, coffee, kaya and butter toast, half-boiled eggs and its signature dishes like Hainan Chicken Chop, Hailam Mee and Pork Bread.
According to Mervyn, the Hainanese community is very business-savvy and creative. They brought along more than just Hainanese cuisines but also created their own specialities after blending it with the local culture. “Our diverse menu reflects this. We created our own version of Hainan Chicken Chop apart from having the usual coffee and toast.”
For Mervyn, it is hard for kopitiams to maintain the taste of coffee in its truest form. “The coffee that you taste in most kopitiams can’t be compared with what your grandfather taste decades ago. Times have changed. The raw beans are the result of biotechnology and fertilisers. “Sometimes, the beans are over roast and too acidic in taste.”
Sin Hoy How, on the other hand, tries to maintain the coffee taste of the past. “We still use our old formula of coffee roasting. The way we brew the coffee maintains, from simmering of coffee with a flannel sock with boiled water and adding the right amount of milk or sugar,” says Lee Chew Boey.