White coffee and thousand-layer butter cake at Chinatown's Kopitiam
In the league of international breakfast powers, Malaysia isn’t quite a star player. It’s hard to nail down an iconic morning dish in a country where mealtimes are fluid and snacking is a way of life. Sure, you can eat nasi lemak (rice with anchovies, peanuts, and boiled eggs) at 8 a.m., but it’s just as popular at 8 p.m., or any hour in between. Still, most Malaysians agree on the importance of breakfast, if for no other reason than to signify the kickoff of another period of sustained eating in this food-obsessed country.
I’ve never been to Malaysia, so my understanding of this stuff is all secondhand. But I do spend a lot of mornings at Kopitiam, a tiny coffee shop in New York City’s Chinatown owned and operated by Penang native Kyo Pang, 30, and Xin Nan Lin, “early 20s.” Kopitiam, which opened last year, is the city’s only Malaysian kopitiam (kopi is Malay for coffee; tiam is Hokkein for shop). They serve the kind of food that’s commonly eaten for breakfast in their motherland but virtually unknown here.
First and arguably foremost, Kopitiam is about the coffee. Pang is a coffee freak, and it shows when she starts describing the drinks. There’s the traditional kopi-o (o means black), made with Malaysian beans roasted over charcoal and ground to a rough, pebbly texture. (Kopitiam gets their beans from Koon Kee, one of Malaysia’s most well-known growers.) Once brewed, it’s poured through a low-tech strainer that resembles a sock, resulting in a thick, dark liquid with the consistency of syrup and a surprisingly smooth, mild flavor.
Then there’s kopi tarik, which is kopi-o mixed with sweetened condensed milk by a dramatic technique of pouring streams of hot liquid between two pots. And there’s Malaysia’s famed white coffee, in which the beans get roasted with olive oil, then finely ground with powdered dairy that blooms into a milky, sweet cup when mixed with hot water.
Coffee culture runs deep in Malaysia. The country itself, which has at various times been ruled by British, Portuguese, and Dutch powers, is a melting pot of Chinese, Malay, Indian and Thai cultures, among others. According to Jean Duruz and Gaik Cheng Khoo, authors of Eating Together: Food, Space and Identity in Malaysia and Singapore, “Historically, kopitiams have existed for as long as there have been in Chinese in Malaysia,” mostly operated by Southern Chinese immigrants who settled during the British colonial era in the 19th century, though there’s been a Chinese influence in Malaysia since at least the 15th century. Pang’s family is descended from this group, who call themselves Baba Nyonya (a.k.a. Peranakan), and who worked as merchants and traders in the colonial era, shuttling coffee and other goods between East and West.
Pang told me that she, like many Malaysians, started drinking coffee around age five. The stuff runs in her blood: Pang’s grandfather ran a kopitiam in Penang, which her father eventually turned into a renowned restaurant. Growing up, Pang’s parents advised her to stay away from the brutal restaurant business, so she came to New York to study advertising and public relations, and worked in fashion and nightlife. In her off hours, Pang cooked the Malaysian food she grew up with for dinner parties with friends.
One day, on a transatlantic phone call, Pang’s mother told her that the snack shop Pang frequented as a child had closed after its elderly owner passed away. “I thought about what would happen when my dad is gone,” Pang recalls. “His restaurant is three generations old, and no one would be there to carry on his passion.” Pang, who was growing weary of New York’s fashion and nightlife scene, began cooking and selling Malaysian snacks at local street fairs, using the family recipes she knew by heart. After selling out at virtually every event, she leased the shoebox-sized storefront on Canal Street, bringing Lin along for the ride. They live nearby, which makes for an easy commute—a true necessity, since they sometimes stay in the shop prepping until 4 or 5 a.m.
What keeps them so late (or early, as the case may be) largely revolves around the food: They make homestyle dishes like nasi lemak and thousand-layer butter cake (made in a painstaking process that involves pouring and steaming in between each individual layer of batter) in a diminutive kitchen outfitted with only a single electric burner, a steamer, and a toaster oven.
What I come for in the morning is kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs. Kaya is a jam-like, mint-green spread made from eggs, coconut milk, palm sugar, and pandan leaves, which Pang stirs over a double boiler for an hour and a half until it’s as thick as custard and silky-smooth. It’s slathered across two slabs of thick-cut white toast that’s magically both crispy and fluffy, stacked up like a club sandwich from Mars. Paired with two barely-set soft-boiled eggs bobbing in a little bowl of soy sauce broth with pepper, it’s a breakfast of contrasts: salty with sweet, crunchy with gooey, solid and liquid. That plus a kopi-o: If there’s a better morning time rocket fuel, I don’t want to know about it.
When Kopitiam first opened, Pang would open around 8 a.m. Today, the shop doesn’t serve its first customer until 10 a.m. “Our coffee isn’t meant for people who want to grab and go first thing in the morning,” Pang says. “It takes time. You can’t be in a rush at a kopitiam.” And with that, she’s back to the kitchen, another long morning ahead.