Kopitiams (Coffee Shop)
We are going to start this article by stating the obvious, at least to locals: Coffee Shops (kopitiams) are not coffeehouses. When overseas visitors come to Ipoh, for example, as locals we might suggest visiting a Coffee Shop for a drink and bite to eat. It is frequently the case that those new to Malaysia immediately think of a coffeehouse like Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Costa, Pacific or Starbucks.
This confusion is understandable, so in this article we are going to explore kopitiams and their history for locals and visitors alike.
A kopitiam is an ‘old-fashioned’ coffee shop (more on the modernisation later) that can be found throughout Malaysia. The word kopi is a Malay term for coffee while tiam is the Hokkien/Hakka term for shop. A typical kopitiam serves a wide selection of beverages, as well as some simple food such as bread, toast with kaya and butter as well as half-boiled eggs.
Like many terms in Ipoh, there are problems with the terminology. For instance, do kopitiams only sell drinks and basic food items? Strictly, yes. But today at least (and for a long while), most kopitiams have hawker stalls selling a range of Malaysian dishes such as Curry Mee, Chicken Rice, Popiah, and Fried Noodles.
That said, you might find that business scopes of these premises change depending on the time of day. For example, in one of the most famous coffee shop in Ipoh’s Old Town, hawker stalls are open for morning trade but in the afternoon, only the main kopitiam remains open for drinks, kaya toast and half-boiled eggs.
Most Ipoh coffee shops, quite naturally, serve Ipoh White Coffee. But obviously, this is not the only beverage available. Here we have produced a list of common drinks in Ipoh’s kopitiams, along with some explanation of the terms and language used.
Specific to Ipoh that’s Good to Know
1. In places like Kuala Lumpur or Penang, if you want an iced beverage, you would say ‘beng’. For instance, an Iced Coffee would be Kopi Beng. However, in Ipoh, it is more common to use the Cantonese word, ‘syut’ (sounds like shoe but will a lightly pronounced ‘t’ at the end).
2. Ipoh is famous for its ‘White’ Coffee. As explained in our feature article about Ipoh White Coffee, the colour refers to the way the bean is roasted with palm oil margarine. If you want coffee made with these beans, you need to pre-fix the above coffee types with ‘bak’ (white). For example, if you want Ipoh White Coffee, with evaporated milk, iced and no sugar you would ask for Bak Kopi ‘C’ Syut Kosong.
If your preferred beverage is tea, we have produced another reference chart that is similar to the one we produced for coffee. In Malay, tea is ‘teh’ and refers to black/red tea. If you want Chinese tea in an Ipoh kopitiam, you will ask for a tong cha (hot) or tong cha syut (iced).
Mixed Coffee and Tea
In Ipoh this drink is referred to as ‘Cham’, but you might find it called Yin yong or Yuan yang in other Malaysian cities.
This will be a sweetened hot mix of coffee and tea with condensed milk. If you want to specify preferences, the above post-fixes apply once more: ‘O’ (no milk), ‘C’ (with evaporated milk), ‘Syut’ (Iced) and Kosong (no milk or sugar)
Other useful terms in Ipoh coffee shops are
Less sweet (siew tim)
More sweet (tim D)
Besides all these versions of coffee and tea, kopitiams also serve a range of soft drinks, Milo and Horlicks. In addition, a lot of Ipoh’s coffee shops also sell beer.
What is the difference between a Kopitiam and Food Court/Hawker Centre?
A simple answer to this question is size. Food courts and hawker centres are usually large places with many hawker stalls. Kopitiams, on the other hand, are typically smaller with just a handful of hawker stalls. However, though this definition applies in most instances, some kopitiams can be quite large and some hawker centres relatively small. As a rule, kopitiams are housed in single or double shophouses, while food courts and hawker centres tend to be (larger) detached buildings.
In Ipoh, traditional coffee shops are abundant. However, a new kind of kopitiam has also emerged over recent years. These ‘modern’ coffee shops are built on the same premise as a traditional kopitiam but have more comfortable furnishings and air-conditioning. These places can be found in modernised shop houses but more typically they are situated in shopping malls.
Some offer more extensive menus and cater for different mealtimes. Unlike the traditional coffee shops, many of these modern incarnations serve food that is halal. Old Town White Coffee (a company founded in Ipoh) was one of the early pioneers of this model but today there are hundreds of them throughout Malaysia, such as Pappa Rich and Kluang Station.
As with many of these mall-based industrial food and beverage enterprises around the world, in terms of quality it is difficult to match the genuine locally based kopitiam. Add into the mix the heritage and tradition, Ipoh’s ‘old-fashioned’ coffee shops must be preferred for an overall customer experience. And that is why they continue to thrive today like they always have.