Let's start with the bread and butter of the kopitiam - coffee, or kopi in Malay and Hokkien, ka feh in Cantonese.
Malaysian coffee, unlike its western counterparts, is usually roasted in margarine until charcoal black. After your skillful kopitiam tauke (barista) made it into your cuppa it's usually ink black. It tastes sourish bitter with a little hint of charcoal. Traditional kopitiam will have porcelain cups and saucers like the one below.
Your standard kopi is usually served hot with sweetened condensed milk. Variations of kopi are as follows (for convenience's sake English will be in blue, Hokkien in red and Malay in green):
Iced coffee: kopi peng, kopi ais. They will serve you a large glass with 8 portions ice and 2 portions coffee. That's why we have...
Iced coffee, less ice: kopi peng ss'eng jioh, kopi kurang ais. If your kopitiam waiter happen to be a foreign worker forget the less ice option. It's too complicated for them.
Lukewarm coffee: kopi so'om, kopi suam. Not pipping hot but just nice for a good gulp.
Thick coffee: kopi kao, kopi kao. Double espresso.
Coffee with no condensed milk, sweetened with sugar: kopi-or, kopi-or. Or means black. Americano.
Coffee with evaporated milk: kopi si, kopi si. Somehow there's a perception that evaporated milk is less unhealthy compared to condensed milk.
Plain black coffee: kopi-or mai liao, kopi kosong. Mai liao means nothing, kosong means zero. Americano when Starbucks run out of sugar.
Coffee less sweetened: kopi kiam t'eng, kopi kurang manis. If you're in an Indian establishment please repeat the kurang (less) at least 3 times.
Thanks to aggressive marketing and probably very little competition back then, Nescafe is widely popular in Malaysia. The instant coffee brand has now evolved into a synonym for coffee, so you may also substitute 'kopi' with 'Nescafe' when ordering.
Now we can proceed to the teas. This is where our ethnicity comes into play - Indians usually drink black tea (Ceylon most of the time); while Chinese drink a wide range of oolong, green, white and black teas. However, the kopitiam serves only Lipton or Boh teh for everyday consumption.
Generally ordering instructions are similar as coffee. Flavors range from the Mamak (Indian Muslim) thick teh tarik to the Chinese bland teh-or.
Your standard teh is usually served hot with sweetened condensed milk. In a Mamak stall expect your barista to "pull" your tea to cool it a little before serving, with a thick foam on top of your beverage. Variations of teh are as follows:
Iced tea: teh peng, teh ais. They will serve you a large glass with 8 portions ice and 2 portions tea. The characteristic color of teh ais is what Malaysians refer to flood waters. That's why we have...
Iced tea, less ice: teh peng ss'eng jioh, teh kurang ais.
Lukewarm tea: teh so'om, teh suam. Not pipping hot but just nice for a good gulp.
No such technology to make your tea double in concentration, so we skip teh kao.
Tea with no condensed milk, sweetened with sugar: teh-or, teh-or. Or means black. No milk.
Tea with evaporated milk: teh si, teh si. Somehow there's a perception that evaporated milk is less unhealthy compared to condensed milk. For me I liked this option because one would not get intoxicated by the taste of condensed milk after your second sip.
Plain tea: teh-or mai liao, teh kosong. Mai liao means nothing, kosong means zero. Tea during sugar strike.
Tea less sweetened: teh kiam t'eng, teh kurang manis. Advice as above.
If you're still unsure of how these jumble of languages are pronounced, pay attention to the waiter or waitresses shouting your order to the baristas. They have the best pronunciation of Lingua Kopitiam (foreign workers excluded).
So the next time you find yourself in a kopitiam, please sit back and enjoy the hive of activities. The shop may be 100 years old, fumed with char koay teow smog and blackened by charcoal of grilling satay, but it's still the best place to have a cuppa!
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