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COFFEE CULTURE IN MALAYSIA
Coffee culture may be relatively new to Malaysians, but coffee-drinking is not. Years before gourmet coffee chains arrived in Malaysia from the United States and Italy, Malaysians were already well-versed in the art of coffee-making and coffee-drinking. However, over the years, Malaysian coffee shops have evolved and taken on different forms. The typical old-fashioned Chinese coffee shop or kopitiam is basically a breakfast and coffee outlet. Its name is derived from the Malay word 'kopi', which obviously means coffee and the Hokkien word 'tiam' which means shop. The menu features basic offerings: coffee, tea, soft drinks and other beverages, as well as breakfast items like 'kaya' toast, soft-boiled eggs, snacks and simple dishes.
Many Malaysians, especially the older generation, have wonderful memories of these good old coffee shops. They would have lingered over cups of coffee and exchanged 'coffee shop talk', which would have covered various topics like national politics, work, movies and food. It was not unusual to spot professionals like doctors, lawyers, teachers and politicians within the premises of these shops. What better place to meet up than at a kopitiam joint. They chose this meeting place for its location, affordability and ambience.
However, with the advent of western coffee chains like Starbucks and The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf in Malaysia, these Chinese kopitiams have become increasingly less popular and less common in urban areas. Unlike the old-fashioned, Chinese coffee shops, the new kopitiam outlets are usually located in more modern, hygienic settings like shopping malls, rather than in the traditional rows of shop houses. These outlets are mushrooming everywhere in major cities and towns. These fancy coffee chains have changed the way many Malaysians think about coffee. Gone is the simple, affordable cup of 'kopi O' or 'kopi susu' of yesteryear. Nowadays, it is a latte or an espresso made with different types of coffee beans and different flavours.
Gourmet coffee, moreover, is not cheap. Hence, some enterprising Malaysians have come up with an alternative to the western coffee chains. Homegrown coffee chains like Old Town Kopitiam and Hailam Coffee allow locals to experience the coffee culture at a more affordable price. In terms of decor, these outlets are reminiscent of the traditional Chinese coffee shops. They have antique-looking signboards, attractive white marble table-tops and charming, old-fashioned furniture. This mix of the old and the modern seems to appeal to modern city folk.
Many of these local coffee chains have something unique to offer as well which the western chains do not, and that is white coffee. White coffee is a blend of Liberies, Arabics and Robusta beans. It is roasted coffee prepared using an unusual method that combines modern elements of roasting with traditional Malaysian brewing practices. White coffee has always been associated with Ipoh, as it was originally introduced by Chinese migrants who came to work in the Perak tin mines. The term 'white coffee' is a literal translation of its Chinese name, although there are two other theories about the origins of the name. Some say it is called white coffee because it has a relatively lighter colour than normal black coffee. Others say it is called white coffee because it is the favourite drink of the 'white man'. White coffee seems to be popular among the young and old now. Coffee drinkers who prefer white coffee, say their coffee has a superior taste and aroma as it is freshly brewed. Those who frequent the western outlets like Starbucks may disagree.
Adapted from ‘Coffee Anyone?’ MEP Volume 2, 2009