Last Update: April 2020
Whenever I talk about Malaysia it always comes back to food, I just can’t help myself. Before you know it I’m going on and on about mamak stalls and kopitiams. That’s usually when I notice the puzzling gaze of my audience, ‘What is Kopitiam?’.
I guess it must be kind of confusing if you’ve never been to Malaysia. Or to Singapore for that matter, because kopitiam might be even more popular in the lion city. For the record, Indonesia also has kopitiams. However, they rather go by the name ‘Kedai Kopi’ and often are more of a ramshackle version.
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I am not a Malay local, so to make sure I’m not spreading nonsense I had three different locals explain to me what is kopitiam in their own words. They gave me three different answers! Fortunately I did find a kind of common thread in their explanations, which is what I am giving to you.
‘Kopi’ translates to ‘Coffee’ in Malay and ‘Tiam’ means ‘Shop’ in Hokkien Chinese, so it literally means coffee shop. But of course that’s not the end of it. Over time kopitiam had its own specific culture built around it and it even has its own dedicated slang.
Malaysia has several airports with regular flights from all directions. Furthermore, domestic flights as an alternative for road transportation are definitely an option because of the many low cost airlines. Check the Skyscanner website for the full schedule of incoming and outgoing flights.
Still, bus transport is the cheapest way to to get around in Malaysia. Especially during weekends and public holidays it makes sense to secure your seat. Skip the lines at the bus station and book your ticket with 12GoAsia.
A kopitiam is an integral part of the Malaysian/Chinese culture and social scene. A place frequented by uncle for his daily fix of Malaysian sock pulled kopi O Gao (strong black coffee). When he’s not lingering over his newspaper he plays chess or makes political comments that nobody wants to hear.
Auntie also visits every day for the latest gossip, but she prefers kopi C (with milk). Commuters have a quick breakfast or pick up their teh peng (sweet iced tea) and kaya butter toast (toast with coconut jam, sometimes dipped in soft boiled eggs).
At lunch time, delivery boys and taxi drivers stop by for a bowl of Mee Goreng (fried noodles) and teh poh (thin tea with lot’s of water). School children use the kopitiam for studying after school hours while enjoying milo (powdered chocolate drink). Teenagers hang out with their friends consuming snacks, cakes and ‘ji ba ho’ (Singaporean isotonic sports drink).
Above all, a Kopitiam is a place where the neighborhood meets for social interaction.
Out of the thousands of kopitiams in Malaysia and Singapore some are more established than others. Originally they were just small shops where the owner served his coffee/tea and a few small snacks, like charcoal toast and kaya. More food was facilitated by the few surrounding food stalls. There are lot’s of these old school places left that operate this way.
However, many of them evolved into small restaurants. They still offer traditional kaya and milo, but added a wider variety of food like nasi lemak (Malaysia’s national rice dish) and various noodle dishes served from their own kitchen.
While these ‘new style’ kopitiams still fulfill their traditional role of neighborhood hangout, this is less true for the latest evolution in kopitiams.
Large chains that go by names as ‘Killiney Kopitiam‘ and ‘Kopitiam’ have sprung up with their marketing trying to evoke ‘the good old days’. They are popular and serve all the traditional fare, but usually lack the social context that is so characteristic for traditional kopitiams.
If you ever find yourself in Malaysia and you want a taste of authentic food/culture, then an “old skool kopitiam” is the place to go. You should definitely experience this true reflection of Malay/Chinese heritage that is still very much alive in places like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore and Georgetown on Penang Island. And of course, enjoy some of the best local food and kopi while you’re at it!
Note!: Healthcare in South East Asia is hopelessly underdeveloped. Any serious ailment or injury will most likely involve medical transport to Bangkok or Singapore costing a fortune to be paid upfront. Hospital beds around $500 will have to be paid upront as well if you lack proper insurance. Read about travel insurance here, or get an instant, non-committal quote here.
Did you know that I have never visited Singapore? Yeah surprise, surprise! I know I will one day, but in the mean time I wonder about kopitiams in Singapore. Are they the same as in Malaysia or is there a significant difference? Wanna help to shed some light? Please let us know in the comment section below.