Words and Images by Pelin Keskin
Before we get to the food, let's do a little background knowledge so you can understand the importance of this tiny establishment in China Town, NYC. Kopitiam's name translates to “coffee shop”. Kopi is coffee, tiam is shop in Malay and Hakka respectively. Coffee houses are a staple in many countries, and in this Malaysian context, kopitiams specifically refer to Malaysian Chinese coffee houses. The speciality is that they are multi-servicing for your hunger and thirst needs, so will offer a small but diverse range of choice.
When you walk into Kopitiam the first thing you notice is the striking colour of blue and the smell. The kitchen is tiny and behind the counter, with the owner - Kyo Pang - is keeping busy, towel slung over her shoulder. Her partner welcomes you at the registry, pointing out the menu on the counter. The menu is split into three; breakfast, savoury, sweet. Kyo Pang prides herself and her establishment on serving traditional Baba Nyonya cuisine. To quote her:
"Baba-Nyonya are terms that were used for the descendants of the 15th through 17th century Chinese immigrants to the British Malaya. "Baba" referred to men and "Nyonya" referred to women. Back in the days, our cultures were very much influenced by the local Malays & Europeans, so were the cuisines. Since women took the major responsibilities in the cookings, Nyonyas (women) were well known for a wide variety of traditional street foods and cake (kuih). Unfortunately, Baba Nyonya cuisine is a fading tradition because the preparation process is so delicate and very time consuming. Hence, as the third generation of Nyonya in my family, I feel that it is my obligation to keep this beautiful tradition going." (read more here)
We ordered the kaya butter toast, nasi lemak and pulut panggang. To drink we had the penang kopi-o. When ordering the penang kopi-o we were warned; “it’s very strong black coffee, not like Western coffee - stronger” so you know where to go if regular coffee isn’t doing it for you.
The butter toast came first, in all it’s two-inch thick glory. Golden crispy on the outside, warm and fluffy, with the delicious kaya in the middle oozing out of the inside. Kaya - a Southeast Asian staple - is coconut, egg and pandan leaf jam. These guys make in-house, and also sell a jar of it for $9, which really isn’t bad for this rare kind of handmade jam.
Shortly after the toast was devoured, the nasi lemak came. The crunch from the fried anchovies and peanuts with the sambal gave it the richness in texture to pair it with the richness in flavour. This is a dish that is mostly eaten in the mornings but can be consumed at any part of the day as it is very filling. Finally, the pulut panggang came - glutinous rice wrapped in banana leaves and grilled with a treasure of shrimp floss in the middle. The strength of flavour from the shrimp floss actually surprised me because it’s so smokey and rich. Paired with the glutinous rice, it’s extremely satisfying and when you leave this will be the flavour that stays on your tastebuds the longest. The only regret I have is not ordering something sweet but this small place has become one of my favourite spots in the City so I will be back.
Kopitiam is a treasure in New York City because it’s the only one of its kind. The price point is extremely affordable and the food is authentic and rooted in its culture and tradition. They’re fairly new and what they’re doing is amazing so please pop in and get yourself something, no matter what it is.