Kopi Tiam

6 Dec

Kopi tiam refers to the little Chinese coffee shops that dot the Malaysian and Singaporean urban landscape. Kopi, of course, means coffee, and tiam is “time,” so literally, “coffee time.” (Try saying it with a thick Mandarin accent for the full effect.) They’re like diners in America: family-owned businesses full of old men reading newspapers and crabby ladies serving comfort food, though in Malaysia that’s more likely to mean noodles than pancakes. And, like the true diners in the US, the old-guard kopi tiams are increasingly getting pushed out by chains like Old Town White Coffee and Pappa Rich, which trade on the nostalgia of Malaysians who want to have their air conditioning and eat their roti bakar, too.

The unchanged facade of Kedai Makanan Yut Kee

But you can still find the real thing, especially if you brave the traffic of downtown Kuala Lumpur. Kedai Makanan Yut Kee is one of the oldest kopi tiams in the city, as well as being the recent winner of the coveted Love Your Street Food award for best kopi tiam. Not much has changed since Yut Kee opened its doors in 1928, including the little old lady sitting behind the counter. (Even the bread is toasted the old-fashioned way, by charcoal.)

A portrait of Yut Kee's founder, and the menu

We started our meal (elevenses, if you must know) with a cup of white coffee. No, not white coffee in the British sense, although it does contain milk (…or at least, a dairy-like substance). “White” coffee in Malaysia means that the beans have been roasted in palm-oil margarine (!) only, rather than the more common mix of margarine, sugar, and wheat (!!), and thus is considered purer, or “white.” No wonder they drink it with sugar and milk.

There’s an unwritten law that white coffee must be served in these sorts of old-timey cups. For example, the above photo was taken not at Yut Kee, but the aforementioned Old Town White Coffee. (Look, it’s 10 minutes from my house, okay? Besides, it’s better than going to Starbucks…) I’m sure at Yut Kee, the cups are actual antiques, instead of just looking like it.

One of Yut Kee’s specialties is roti babi, or literally “pork bread.” It’s kind of like the love child of a Monte Cristo and egg foo young. Or something concocted by a person who didn’t have chopsticks for their stir-fry.

The filling is mostly thinly sliced pork, plus some vegetables and crab meat, seasoned with soy and stuffed into a roll. Then the Chinese ladies in the back do something magical with it involving copious amounts of oil, and voila. Try it with Worcestershire sauce! Actually, I think this would be pretty popular in diners back in the US. Like the best diner food, it’s mysteriously comforting, slightly greasy, and insanely bad for you.

Yut Kee also sells their house-made kaya (kind of a coconut curd), so you can enjoy a little taste of history at home. Time to fire up the charcoal grill and make some toast…

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One Response to “Kopi Tiam”

  1. Megara December 6, 2010 at 6:57 pm #

    Visiting Kedai Makanan Yut Kee was the highlight of my visit to KL. Viva la kopi tiam.

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