Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Malaysian Coffee

Kopi tiams (coffee shops) are an integral part of Malaysian culture. You'll find these ultra-casual open-air establishments everywhere, providing nourishment to the locals before they head off for the day. Most Western style coffee houses like Starbucks don't open until at least 9 a.m. — shocking! — so a kopi tiam is your best bet for coffee in the morning.

But if you just order a kopi (coffee), you may be surprised by what you get. Not grossed out surprised. Just, "Oh, that's not what I expected" surprised. The default way to serve a nice, hot cup of coffee is with sweetened condensed milk mixed into the brew. Lucky for me that I love milky, sweet, coffee goodness! Asking for kopi-o will result in a cup without milk but still sweetened with sugar. Kopi kosong is what most Americans think of as straight up coffee — black, no sugar, no milk.

The coffee is brewed in a sock, what they call the muslin bag attached around the top to a large metal ring with a handle. Ground coffee is placed into the sock and then steeped in hot water. A few spoonfuls of sweetened condensed milk are ladled into each cup of coffee, and then the whole mixture is poured back and forth between two cups, one held high above the other, to combine everything and make a nice foam on top.

Malaysians have an interesting way of roasting coffee. Instead of a dry roast, they traditionally stir the beans with butter and sugar in a pan placed over a hot fire. With all the sweetened condensed milk plus my lack of discerning taste buds, I can't really detect a difference in taste from my regular American coffee. Supposedly, this roasting method results in a burnt flavor that masks the harshness of liberica beans typically used.

At the grocery stores, instant coffee gets far more shelf space than coffee beans or ground coffee. Now, I finally understand my parents' penchant for instant. Most of the instant coffee is bags of single serving packets labeled "white coffee" and "3-in-1." At first, my friend and I thought that it was some special light roast, but it turns out that white coffee means instant coffee with nondairy creamer and sugar mixed in. See how it's similar to the kopi served at the restaurants? The white coffee labeled 2-in-1 doesn't have sugar included.

Traditional Penang White Coffee
Now with Mocha!

Worried about coming to Penang and having to give up espresso? You'll be glad to know that Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf cafes are everywhere, usually right next to each other. On my exploratory trip to Penang, I ordered a Tall Cafe Mocha at Starbucks, and it was just like they serve in America. In fact, it was better than what I usually drink because I forgot to ask for low fat milk, so it had the full creaminess of whole milk in it. That was the point when I realized I could live here. Penang wouldn't be 100% foreign if I could still go to Starbucks.

But not everything is American at a Malaysian Starbucks.

Small, locally owned espresso houses abound in Penang, too.  I'm gradually working my way through them, but here are my favorites so far.

siTigun Bicycle Pit-Stop Cafe is a Italian-style micro roastery that serves knock-your-socks-off espresso plus homemade croissants and other delicious delights.

Kopi C. Espresso at China House is, despite it's name, Australian cuisine and the most talked about restaurant in town right now.

55 Cafe at Coffee Atelier serves an excellent breakfast in addition to espresso. Sneak back towards the bathroom to see the old-fashioned Malay coffee roaster that's no longer in use but still cool to look at.

Double Malay coffee roaster at Coffee Atelier

Lighthouse Coffee is for the coffee connoisseur with its variety of beans, brewing styles (espresso machine, ice drip, French press, and siphon) and syrups plus advanced barista workshops, coffee tastings (like wine tastings) and coffee appreciation seminars.

siTigun picks through green coffee beans before roasting them the Italian way.

Update: Regarding white coffee, I've now heard that it's beans roasted with only butter and no sugar, creating a lighter roast than the traditional way of using both butter and sugar. The instant stuff at the stores still typically contains sugar in the sachet unless otherwise indicated.


  1. very interesting post--I am a coffee junkie. I would be very interested in trying both the kopi and the kopi-o. My coffee-phobic husband might even try it because of the "roasting" of both butter and sugar (his two favorite things).

  2. Loved this post! I too was relieved to find that the Starbucks down the street could make a skinny caramel latté like at home. Only issue is I can't get the sugar free syrup here but I can live with that.

    A coffee roaster at a local wet market told me that they use margarine and sugar in Singapore to roast the beans. I'm wondering if that was just him or if they all use that instead of butter here. You'll find the locals here really like to have Kaya toast with their coffee. Do you have that in Malaysia as well?

    I usually shy away from straight coffee but I'm going to see if we have the coffee with the sweetened condensed milk here. I have a feeling I would actually enjoy that.

  3. I love the name Whoopie pie! Every time I see on I want to order it just to say "whoopie!".

  4. I am considering an extended stay in Penang, Malaysia soon, and this blog post just made me a lot less concerned about missing my US coffee! I will definitely find these places! :)

  5. Loved this post since returning to the US from Malaysia, including Penang, last weekend, with a huge bag of Malaysian coffee! I drink my weight in kopi ice when I'm there!

  6. I am Malaysian and reading all the comments above made my face hurt from smiling. You guys are awesome. Xx


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