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  • Izzuddin Ramli

The Warung – A Pit Stop for Refreshment and Some Culture

No frills, just good old kopi and nasi lemak with kuih on the side – that’s the essence of the Malaysian warung.

A warung in Teluk Bahang, Penang.
A warung in Teluk Bahang, Penang. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

The moment Pak Mat stands up from his chair, fixing his shabby East Coast batik sarong and reaching for his Kelantanese batik lepas headcloth that has been hanging all day from the mother pillar of his old wooden Malay house, the only words that come out from Mek Yah’s sireh-filled mouth are, “Tubik mlepok la tu!” (“You’re going out to lepak again!”)

Pak Mat starts his Honda C70 motorcycle and rides away without replying . She knows he is going to Kedai Dollah, a warung located at the heart of Kampung Kuchelong, for a cup of coffee. It usually leads to hours of Dam Aji (checkers), accompanied with rolls of Javanese tobacco leaf cigarettes. Kedai Dollah has become the most popular warung in the village, frequented by young and old, since the owner hired a dazzling young lady from Narathiwat Province, Thailand, to wait tables; she also happens to be a distant relative.

Kedai Dollah is typical of village life: a warung is a place to lepak; every so often it would also turn into a gambling pit where the audience or “commentators” outnumber the players.

An assortment of kuih is usually available at the warung.
An assortment of kuih is usually available at the warung. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

As a Kelantanese-born Malay, I moved to Penang in 2008 and that was when I first met different people and experienced different cultures. My perception on what we call a Malay warung has since changed: the warung – or kopitiam in Hokkien and cafe in French – is actually a global fashion. Each has its own style but share one thing in common: coffee.

Symbol of the Traditional Malay Village

The warung is common sight at roadsides, built haphazardly with walls of cheap planks. But it is much more than just a place to eat and drink – it is a facet of Malay society.

“People stop at the warung in the mornings not only for food, but also for the simplicity, the convenience and the sense of tradition. Look at how most warung owners run their business – they don’t care if you don’t have enough cash, you can pay tomorrow,” says Sulaiman, a regular customer at Roti Jala Belimbing Cafe at Teluk Bahang.

Each kampung has at least one small warung that is comprised of a few areas such as the kitchen, the drinks section, the dining area and a roti canai pit, usually located near the entrance. Most warungs open as early as 6.30am to serve breakfast to villagers returning from Fajr prayers at the nearby mosque or surau, and to workers and school children. Older men in sarong, baju Melayu and kopiah sit together on a long wooden bench, enjoying coffee and a packet of nasi lemak while waiting for the sun to rise. Occasionally, stories of village politics break the morning silence.

It is this longing for the good old days that lead people to the warung, drawn by the saccharine sweetness of kuih tepung pelita and the fragrant scent of lepang pisang wrapped in banana leaf. Rapid development has indeed left many longing for the traditional even before it is gone; skyscrapers and shopping malls replace paddy fields and traditional houses, and erases the sense of community bit by bit.

For many, especially those living in Batu Uban and Tanjung Tokong, warungs offer “refuge” – a place to reminisce over what is gone. “You can’t take the ‘sense of kampung’ out of a person. Everything is becoming more expensive, especially food. So I go to warungs for my breakfast; at least it makes me think of my mom’s (house) in the kampung,” says Akmal Zakaria, from Parit Buntar.

In pre-Independence Malaya, when the literacy rate was still low, the warung served as a place for village folks to gather and “listen” to the news: those who could read would narrate stories from the newspapers. News travelled by word of mouth, circulated at warungs in the form of pamphlets, newsletters and newspapers. Today, the situation is not dissimilar: the warung has become an arena for villagers to spread political gossip; it is also used by local politicians to meet and greet voters.

Take your pick for afternoon tea.
Take your pick for afternoon tea. Photo by Izzuddin Ramli.

Good Food, Anytime

Malaysia has countless varieties of kuihs – bite-sized snacks that can be enjoyed any time of the day. Sold in three-wheeled bikes as in Kelantan and Terengganu, in pickup trucks among the Malay community in Patani, or piled high in baskets in warungs, they are ready to be eaten together with teh tarik or coffee.

Kelantan, being next to Thailand, has always seen people crossing the border in both directions. This brings together not only money and goods, but also language and food – and colourful kuih. Nek bat, puteri mandi, akok, bunga tanjung, jala emas and tepung serunai are among the varieties of Kelantanese kuih found in warungs.

In turn, the west coast’s kuih keria, serabai, apom telur, roti jala, Iranian-origin confection halwa maskat and Fujianese-style fresh spring roll, the popiah, all reflect their Indian, Chinese, European and Middle Eastern roots.

Then there are the favourite Malaysian staples, nasi lemak and roti canai. “I put the roti canai and roti jala pit in the front of my warung so that people can see that they are my specialties,” says Zulkifli, owner of Warung Roti Canai in Kampung Labok, Kelantan.

A warung sustains itself by having multiple ownerships, usually shared between the drink-maker, the cook, the roti canai roller and the kuih seller. It is also a local economic hub, by virtue of being the venue for members of the community to sell their products, particularly homemade kuih. In Melaka and Kelantan, with support from the government, kuih-making has become an intensive supporting business, particularly in Alor Gajah and Jasin where kuih selayang, kuih bangkit and tapai are extensively made for export and local consumption.

Urbanisation has gradually altered the warung – many have adapted to urban needs. While the warung still retains its traditional facade in the kampung, in many city areas, they have morphed into food courts.

Be that as it may, these remain a place for food, for chats and for cultural intermingling.

This article was first published in Penang Monthly, December 2017.


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