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  • Izzuddin Ramli

The Kopitiam — Where Cultures Congregate

Updated: Jul 4, 2022

Seberang Perai is famed for its sumptuous cuisine. Its kopitiams serve more than food – they unite people from all walks of life.

Luang Fong Kopitiam
Luang Fong Kopitiam. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

Before coffee franchises and hipster cafes, there existed the good old kopitiam. And in Seberang Perai, the kopitiam has a character of its own: nestled in old shophouses, furnished with wooden tables and chairs and usually owned and run by the elderly.

While their decor may vary, kopitiams in Penang usually have a similar classic menu listing coffee, tea, milo and the signature toasted bread – or “roti bakar” – with butter and/or kaya, complete with half-boiled eggs and packets of nasi lemak for those who wish to complement their breakfast with something spicy.

In the old days, a kopitiam would use charcoal to toast their bread. It was a tedious process handling burning charcoal, and one had to be extremely careful not to burn the bread. Nowadays, most kopitiams use simpler methods.

Roti bakar is a staple for many kopitiam goers. “I come for the fluffy butter toast and creamy coffee,” says Erina Malek, sipping her cup of hot coffee from an old porcelain cup. “Every morning brings a new scene, with people busy chatting or enjoying their breakfast.”

But there’s more to the kopitiam than just coffee and roti bakar; it is also a place where language fluidly changes – one can detect shifting dialects and colloquialisms being used to order beverages, such as kopi o, kopi o peng, kopi c and cham. “Kopi” is the Malay word for coffee, while the suffixes are in Hokkien: kopi o is hot black coffee with sugar; kopi o peng is iced black coffee with sugar; kopi c is hot coffee with evaporated milk and sugar; cham is a mixture of coffee, tea and a bit of sweetener.

While kopitiams are predominantly a Chinese affair, there are several in Seberang Perai that dish out halal cuisine due to the mainland’s population being 50% Malay. Two such kopitiams are Meng Chai Kopitiam and Luan Fong Kopitiam.

“My coffee shop has been serving three different races for the past 50 years,” says Ah Hoe, who owns Meng Chai Kopitiam in Butterworth. Besides offering varieties of roti bakar, his mouth-watering beef noodle soup should not be missed.

Lim Teng Peng.
Lim Teng Peng. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

Being the eldest child in the family, Ah Hoe was tasked with helping his father run the shop. In the 1940s his father had worked as a chef at the Australian Air Force Base (RAAF, in Teluk Air Tawar); he then opened a small coffee shop selling hot beverages and beef noodles. The kopitiam, which dates back to before Independence, is an establishment for the locals and it is no wonder one can see various races in the shop eating and chatting away today.

Another hidden gem for coffee lovers is Luan Fong Kopitiam. Despite its remote location, this spot receives a fair number of customers every day. Founded by Lim Pong Joo, Luan Fong Kopitiam started out in 1959 as a small stall next to the Cathay Cinema in Butterworth: “My husband inherited the coffee shop from his father,” says Cecelia Liew. “Now, my daughter is continuing the legacy.”

After more than 50 years in existence, the kopitiam relocated to Lorong Bagan Luar 3, and is currently run by Pong Joo’s son, Lim Teng Peng; the present joint opened its doors nearly nine years ago. Luan Fong Kopitiam’s specialty is its rich homemade kaya, which is freshly produced every week. It is so delicious that buyers from as far away as Japan, Holland, Australia and England come to buy in bulk in order to sell it at home.

Besides offering toasted bread dipped in runny eggs or a bowl of hot beef noodles, these joints are a testimony to the diversity of Malaysia: Penangites of various races and religions continue to break bread together. Just pop over to a kopitiam today, and see for yourself.

*This article was first published in Penang Monthly, September 2016.


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