Last Update: November 2021
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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 can 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.
I’ll explain what a kopitiam is and I will give you a list of the best kopitiams to visit in Malaysia and Singapore. A real list of authentic kopitiams mind you! Not sponsored and no tourist traps.
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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’ to ‘shop’ in Hokkien Chinese, so it literally means coffee shop. But of course that’s not the end of it. Over time kopitiam has its own specific culture built around it and even has its own dedicated slang.
For the record, a kopitiam is sometimes also referred to as a ‘kedai kopi’, with ‘kedai’ being the Malay word for ‘shop’. The main difference is that the latter is often muslim friendly, serving halal products, but not always. Yeah, it’s complicated.
A kopitiam is an integral part of the Malaysian/Chinese culture and social scene. It’s 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, often with a side of 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.
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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 in-house or surrounding food hawkers. Needless to say that the quality of the hawker stalls is essential to the kopitiam’s overall success. There are lot’s of these old skool places left that operate this way.
Some 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 recollections of ‘the good ol’ days’. They are popular and serve most of the traditional fare, but usually lack the social context that is so characteristic for traditional kopitiams.
If you ever find yourself in Singapore or Malaysia and you want a taste of the 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 while you’re at it, you’ll get to enjoy some of the best local food and kopi, so why not?
Heng Wah Traditional Coffee Stall The Chinatown complex in Singapore is where Mr. Tang serves his traditional sock pulled nanyang coffee and the most delicious kaya butter toast. A bit difficult to find maybe, but this only helps to keep this little gem one of the best kept kopitiam secrets of Singapore.
Keng Wah Sung Cafe Perfect toast with thick slices of chilled, salted butter and one of the best kopis in town makes this a popular place for locals. Wonton mee and economy bee hoon stir up a crowd every morning. Operational for more than 70 years and it shows. Professional, but still traditional.
Kong Thai Lai Coffeeshop in Georgetown on Penang Island. Traditional coffee and Kaya toast, but also nasi lemak, hokkien mee and fried rice.
Kafeteria dan hotel Eng Loh Another long time kopitiam packed with locals since 1940. Next to great kaya toast the incorporated hawker stalls are excellent. Think Char Kuay Teow and Penang White Curry Mee.
Genting Cafe A bit out of the way, but well worth the detour because of the best Chee Cheong Fun. The secret is in the dressing, in this case peanut butter mixed in with the hoi sin sauce. The in-house nasi lemak and wan tan mee stalls are pretty good as well.
Kedai Kopi Lai Foong One of the three last surviving original coffeeshops in Chinatown. By original I mean real traditional dark and thick, sock pulled nanyang coffee in a rather grimy and gritty environment. The Uncles and Aunties clientele still frequent this place, as they have done for most of their lives
Ho Kow Hainam Kopitiam in Kuala Lumpur. They have been around for 60 years, now in a new location near Jalan Petaling. Very popular place thanks to great marketing. Maybe the place lost a bit of authenticity, but the food is excellent and well worth your visit.
Are you ready to Kopitiam? Let us know your experience in the comments. Also, we are always up for recommendations of good quality Kopitiams to visit.