… The One About Breakfast.
If you live in Malaysia, or a surrounding country where some form of Malay is spoken, you may find this article a bit ho-hum. But if you live outside SE Asia you probably think the headline is a load of gibberish. I’m going to try to explain…
First; where was I? Well, Kota Bharu is at the top right corner of Malaysia near the Thai border. That’s the easy bit. I was in a restaurant called Kopitiam Kita. And that needs some explanation.
Kita is the easy part. In Malay, it means we or our. So I was in Our Kopitiam. The latter is really two words. You might guess that kopi means coffee. That’s the Malay/Indonesian spelling. Tiam though is from the Hokkien and Hakka Chinese dialects and means shop. So, quite simply, a kopitiam is a coffee shop. But hold on. It’s not quite that simple. There are many kinds of coffee shops.
I think it’s fair to say there are even two types of kopitiam. There’s a kind-of up-market style that you find in shopping centers. They try to pretend they’re just like the real ones by putting up wallpaper that makes you think you’re in the old-fashioned style. They serve a purpose though, as you can get a decent coffee and snack without spending an arm and leg at a Starbucks or whatever. They have cutesy names like Pappa Rich and Old Town White Coffee.
But even the phrase white coffee needs a little explanation. It’s not – as you might think – just a coffee with a dash of milk. Its made with coffee beans that have been roasted with margarine, giving them a whitish tinge and a unique flavor. The idea originated in the Malaysian town of Ipoh and quickly became popular throughout the country.
So, to my mind, a real kopitiam is an open-fronted non-airconditioned building with few or no frills. Very basic tables and chairs, often spilling out onto the sidewalk or even into the street. Menus usually are non-existent. Anything the restaurant sells is written on the wall along with prices. They may be permanent painted signs, or just a simple chalk on blackboard. Kopitiam Kita is like that…
It’s one of the most popular in Kota Bharu as it sells something called Roti Titab. I’d never heard of it. Even if you’re Malaysian you may have never heard of it. It’s something the restaurant owner invented, and made up the name to go with it.
Most people popping into a kopitiam for breakfast would order kaya toast with a half-boiled egg. The first part sounds good, but a half-boiled egg? Downright sloppy and runny.
Now, I confess, I’m kind-of addicted to kaya. And I guess that too needs some explanation. It translates as rich – which it is! It’s a sweet spreadable brown-colored paste made from coconut milk and egg whites, no doubt with far too much added sugar. Perfect on toast. I also put it on pancakes. Hey, why not? I’m told you can buy it in Thailand, but no one has ever told me where, so I bring it back from Malaysia in large quantities.
I’d always imagined people would use some toast to eat the egg, and the rest on which to spread the kaya. I’d never given it much thought. Anyhoo, I plopped myself down at the only empty table and ordered “roti titab dan kopi-O” without knowing quite what to expect. But it was the thing to do, so I done it.
Here’s the kopi-O…
The ‘O’ means it’s empty. No milk. No sugar. Although some places add the word ‘kosong’ to denote it should be really really empty. You’ll notice a good quantity of the coffee is in the saucer. It’s supposed to be that way. Honest.
Many years ago I had breakfast with a friend in a kopitiam and his coffee looked just like that. “I’d send it back” I exclaimed. And in return received a lecture about how he used to go with his father to a coffee shop on a Sunday morning and was allowed to drink the coffee in the saucer while his father drank from the cup. “I’d probably send it back if there wasn’t coffee in the saucer” he told me. Life can be strange.
Me? I put the cup on the table, slid it around a bit to remove the coffee. and kept it on the table. As far as I’m concerned, what starts in the saucer, stays in the saucer.
Okay. I’ve kept you waiting long enough. What the heck is roti titab?
Well, roti really is a generic word that can mean any type of bread or something resembling bread. My favorite restaurant breakfast is roti canai which looks like this…
Flaky pastry-type bread that you can rip apart and dunk in the curry sauce.
Meanwhile, the roti in roti titab is, well, toast. But hey, it’s not just any old toast, it’s Hailam bread toasted over a charcoal stove. That seems like a lot of trouble for a slice of toast. And what does this lovingly charcoal toasted Hailam bread taste like?…
Now for the titab bit…
Looking at it now, I think I should have carefully cut off the four corners to make four nice little triangles of kaya toast before tackling the sloppy egg. But noooo. I plowed in with spoon and fork and ate it all together. Trust me, a once in a lifetime experience.