A Love Letter to the Charming and Chaotic Kopitiam

Image description: A glass of teh tarik, kaya toast, and half-boiled eggs. 

If you find yourself in Oxford long enough, you’re bound to meet or eventually befriend a Singaporean. They do happen to be everywhere within this city, with accents and vocabulary uniquely recognisable that you’ve probably picked up some lahs or aiyos yourself, along the way. Unfortunately, Malaysians like me are a much rarer breed, though we do still happen to be lurking around within these dreaming spires, and are often mistaken as Singaporean at first glance by well-intentioned Westerners.

Though these two nations within Southeast Asia remain bound by a complicated history and occasional unresolved tension akin to a pair of former flames, our cultural practices — and more importantly, our undying love for local cuisine — essentially remain the same.

While Singapore might be more ahead in terms of economic growth, I am obligated to say that Malaysia nevertheless has a much better reputation for the quality and richness of our food. But this is perhaps a discussion better left for another day. Instead, we revel in the shared joy of our local coffee shops – ridden with charm, chaos, and kaya.

Dear reader, let me introduce you to The Kopitiamℱ. 

The kopitiam is a character of its own – with shiny plastic chairs arranged by folded-up tables laden with specks of rust, the loud whirling of a ceiling fan right above you that makes you weary of it possibly falling apart at any time, and the wafting smell of yesterday’s leftovers from a nearby longkang, which all make the experience even more authentic.

According to its Wikipedia definition, the word happens to be a portmanteau of ‘kopi’ (the Malay/Indonesian term for coffee), and ‘tiam’ (the Hokkien/Hakka term for shop), with “menus typically offering a variety of foods based on eggs, toast, coffee, tea, and Milo.” Though, if I were to define it through entirely personal terms, the kopitiam is to me, a representation of everything endearing that I cherish of home, and of Southeast Asia as a whole.

The kopitiam is a character of its own – with shiny plastic chairs arranged by folded-up tables laden with specks of rust, the loud whirling of a ceiling fan right above you that makes you weary of it possibly falling apart at any time, and the wafting smell of yesterday’s leftovers from a nearby longkang, which all make the experience even more authentic.

As you sit down, you are greeted perhaps by a middle-aged auntie or uncle, who brings you the menu on a singular, laminated piece of paper, covered in traces of grease and oil. Usually, there is no need to even properly go through the menu anyway, because most kopitiam tend to serve the same type of food. Although they are mostly alike, and can be found in abundance all over the region, a kopitiam breakfast or late-afternoon tea, still remains a classic experience that never gets old.

People often talk loudly, especially in an open-air kopitiam, and I appreciate this as part of its unique enticement.

Across the room, one usually would find a group of politically opinionated (and occasionally politically incorrect) uncles debating the upcoming general election, or a group of aunties either absorbed in local gossip or complaining about their husbands. In Southeast Asia, every middle-aged person happens to be an auntie or uncle, whether one may be biologically related to them or not. In another corner of the kopitiam, one might stumble across a family with young children –  distressed parents often giving a telling-off to their hyperactive child for spilling something across the table, or for impulsively disrupting a random stranger’s breakfast to say hello.

More endearingly, kopitiam food is an exciting blend of different cultures bound together by a shared history of immigration, amalgamation, and a vibrant community that has built itself upon remnants of the region’s complicated past, and an ever-more complicated political landscape of the present.

The kopitiam, to me, is an embodiment of nostalgia and memory; A reminder that while many things have changed, and will continue to change within my life and the lives of those around me, it is still likely that the classic breakfast that I have always known – of kaya toast with with half-boiled eggs and teh tarik, will always be on the menu, and will always still taste the same.

Coming to university, I have learnt to make-do without the frequent kopitiam breakfasts I once enjoyed. Adapting to living in the UK, with almost non-existent access to a nearby kopitiam has meant that I now have to opt for the many quirky little coffee shops throughout Oxford instead. Though they are much quieter, and more demure –  they remain equally charming, with stories of their own, and differently-themed cafĂ©s having a uniquely personal touch.

Kopitiam food is an exciting blend of different cultures bound together by a shared history of immigration, amalgamation, and a vibrant community that has built itself upon remnants of the region’s complicated past, and an ever-more complicated political landscape of the present.

I often joke that, at any given moment, one would usually be able to find me in my ‘natural habitat’ – ie, a coffeeshop, regardless of whichever part of the globe I happen to be in. Arguably, this is largely because it fuels my daydreamy, romanticised clichĂ©s of being a writer who spends too much unnecessary time in coffee shops and cafĂ©s, often in search of ‘literary inspiration.’

While I have grown to appreciate these beautiful moments I have in Oxford, often with a freshly-brew mocha and my laptop or a decent book I have brought to read – on certain days, I still inevitably find myself yearning for the taste of home. On these days, I make myself some toast and reach out for the jar of kaya in my fridge, revelling in nostalgia. If anything, these moments only remind me of an essentially visceral part of my soul that will always continue to cherish the irreplaceable charm and chaos of a local kopitiam.

 

Image credits: Dania Kamal Aryf.