KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 30, 2007 (AFP) - Move over Starbucks. Traditional Malaysian "kopitiam" are making a comeback, serving cups of local-style brew and traditional fare as Malaysians discover a taste for nostalgia.
Kopitiam - the word means "coffee shop" in the Hokkien dialect of ethnic Chinese in Malaysia - were originally found in shophouses in villages and towns across the country, serving up coffee and breakfast.
Usually crowded, noisy and rather grimy, they were popular places to grab a quick drink and cheap street food.
Modern kopitiams have retained the old-fashioned marble-topped tables, wooden chairs and chunky crockery, but now they are to be found in the cavernous air-conditioned shopping malls of the capital Kuala Lumpur.
A restaurant staff makes 'teh tarik', where its ingredients are mixed together by pouring them into a mug as far apart as possible. Photo: AFP
And with their thick brewed "kopi," they are holding their own against the cappuccinos and macchiatos offered by foreign coffee chains that exploded onto the Malaysian scene in the late nineties.
City-dwellers are rediscovering kopitiam fare such as soft-boiled eggs eaten with soya sauce and a dash of pepper, and bread toasted over a charcoal fire and slathered with salted butter and kaya, a rich coconut and egg jam.
"I grew up with this. This is very nostalgic for me," said Maran Subramaniam as he sipped a cup of aromatic kopi and munched on kaya toast at Old Town White Coffee outlet in downtown Kuala Lumpur.
"The coffee is cheaper than Starbucks but that's not the only reason. I just like it," said the 31-year-old executive, dressed in a crisp shirt and tie.
The new kopitiams also serve local favourites such as nasi lemak, a coconut flavoured rice with a fiery sambal or chilli paste, fried anchovies and egg on the side, and laksa ? noodles in a spicy broth.
One popular kopitiam chain is Kluang Station which in the past two years has opened four outlets around suburban Kuala Lumpur, as well as one in southern Malacca.
The chain is based on the famous coffee shop at the railway station in Kluang town in southern Johor state, opened in 1938 by the great-grandfather of the chain's owner Phun Jun Jee.
Phun credits his grandfather with maintaining the heritage of the original shop, where the family patriarch worked from the age of eight, and which is now in the hands of the third generation, Phun's uncle.
The coffee served at Kluang Station is made with beans roasted and ground the same way it has always been prepared.
"We make coffee the traditional way. The coffee beans are roasted with sugar and fat in the form of butter. It makes the drink smoother," Phun said.
The kaya at Kluang Station is also from a recipe handed down by his grandfather.
"My granddad used to make kaya in an old milk can and he would stir it over the fire and that's all the kaya he would use in one day," Phun said.
"Now, my kaya production has come up to four drums every three days. Each drum uses about 1,500 eggs. It has gone from a small amount in a tin can to enough to fill your bathtub."
Phun has also tried to recreate the atmosphere of the original kopitiam at the train station.
"I took almost everything I could capture from the original colonial train stations - the wire mesh windows, the station sign boards, the wood finish. I brought Kluang out of Kluang into Kuala Lumpur," he said.
A waitress serves up some traditional 'kopitiam' dishes in Kuala Lumpur.
As nostalgia fans the growth of modern kopitiams, some of the old coffee shops remain but no longer play a significant role in society - except in small towns far from Malaysia's glittering capital.
This correspondent's father, who as a child had helped his own father run a kopitiam in the 1940s in Taiping in northern Perak state, has lived in Kuala Lumpur for almost 40 years.
"The new kopitiams are for the young people. The atmosphere at these modern kopitiams is different. It doesn't give a sense of nostalgia for old timers like us," Loh Thiam Ghee said.
Phun has plans to expand but says he will stick to urban areas. Three more Kluang Station outlets are due to open by year-end.
"I don't intend to go very far from Kuala Lumpur and I think there is a large untapped market. Coffee, eggs and kaya are actually in the DNA of Malaysians," he said.