And so we reach that time of the year: Kuching's month of food that stretches…
A new TIAM for Sarawak KOPI
A new TIAM for Sarawak KOPI
Coffee is arguably the most successful migrant of all time. Originating from the Ethiopian plateau, it spread from there across the Middle East and then into Europe as early as the 17th Century, becoming the most traded commodity in the world after crude oil. It has become the ultimate modern pick me up, one part daily necessity, one part comfortable conversation and one part sociable sophistication. The modern coffeehouse is a feature of every city from Seattle to Singapore – a third space for congregation and relaxation – and its influence seems only to grow.
Malaysia is no different and the kopitiam, as it is known here, is at the heart of daily life. The name itself is symbolic – one half a Malaysianized rendition of the English word ‘coffee’ and the other the Hokkien word for shop – it is a blending of traditions that is inescapably a local brew. A far cry from the quiet sanctity of the hushed coffee chain of comfortable sofas and muted whispers, the Malaysian version is a full volume, full throttle cacophony of clattering plates and shouted orders where community outranks comfort and style.
This is even truer in Sarawak where the American chain invasion in coffee has only recently begun and the old school kopitiam holds strong against the massed forces of gentrification. Here, kopitiams are still largely white-tiled, sparsely decorated spaces with hawker food a priority. Their allure lies in a memory of marble-topped tables surrounded by middle-aged men conducting their business and expanding their networks next to families feeding their children before school. Just as elsewhere in the world (Lloyd’s of London, for example, came into being in a coffee house) the kopitiam is a meeting place, for business or leisure, and endless cups of affordable coffee are the oil in the machine.
The equipment in a kopitiam remains eternal – two tall coffeepots, traditionally hammered out on Bishopsgate Street by the tinsmiths, and a coffee ‘sock’ for straining – the three used in combination to aerate the final brew. This is served with yet more sugar (Kopi ‘O’, derived from the Hokkien word for black), evaporated milk (Kopi C) or streams of condensed milk (Kopi) as standard. Coffee without sugar is considered ‘empty’ (kosong).
In fact, the familiar and much loved taste of Malaysian coffee comes from its very dark roast and the caramelizing of copious amounts of margarine and sugar, added to provide sweetness, all of this once done in-house over a giant, charcoal-fired wok. The process provided the only real coffee descriptor available to the Malaysian tongue: ‘Kaw’. Literally translating to thick, this richness added by the roasting process would set one kopitiam apart from another for the ‘kaw-ness’ of its coffee. For extra descriptive power when ordering, the word is simply doubled up – kaw kaw! Hence the familiar cries in a kopitiam – not far from the lengthy orders in any international coffee house – Kopi O kosong peng kaw kaw (black coffee, no sugar, iced, extra strong!).
“The Malaysian kopitiam is a full volume, full throttle cacophony of clattering plates and shouted orders where community outranks comfort and style.”
Of course, the modern world has provided the factory process and most Kuching kopitiam have now switched to the ubiquitous Cap Tangan, instantly recognizable for its retro, orange ‘thumbs up’ label. A Kuching company, founded in 1969, it once delivered ready roasted coffee on the back of a bicycle and now its product stocks the shelves of almost every supermarket and kopitiam in town, sold from central Kuching to deep in the interior. The individual roasters in Sarawak kopitiam are now few and far between, though the art is coming full circle in the new crop of coffee houses, either Italian-inspired or part of the international third wave of specialty coffee, coming now right here to Kuching.
Coffee blends cultures
Back at the beginning, the usual story is that coffee came into Southeast Asia with the Europeans. The Dutch brought beans into Indonesia, establishing it at the end of the 17th century for a future as the world’s fourth largest cultivator of coffee. In other parts, including what is now Malaysia and Singapore, the British shipped it in for their daily beverage but supposedly it was the Hainanese Chinese that localised it.
As relative latecomers to the Nanyang, they found many of the trades already dominated by other dialect groups, so many Hainanese found employment in European households where they learned to cook the standard Western fare. When the bottom fell out of the rubber market and the British began to leave, the kopitiam was created from their first line in fusion cooking. The mugs, the sock, the pots, the marble-topped tables – the distinctive ‘look’ of the kopitiam – all these apparently came from the Hainanese. The Oh-so English eggs and soldiers became roti bakar and soft-boiled eggs in a bowl and the coffee went through its own transformation.
Julian Leonard Henry @ Lai is the chef at Little Hainan. It is a modern microcosm of the classic kopitiam with raspberry red walls and a flair for design. But the food is a family tradition. In true Sarawak style, Julian himself is half Iban and half Hakka and Cantonese Chinese but he serves up the family recipes passed down to him through his wife, Lynda Phua, who ably mans the front of house. Her Hainanese family is into its third generation in the kopitiam business, the first shop opened by her grandfather in Batu Kawa in 1938.
He shares the traditional family secret to the perfect cup of coffee. Way back when, he says conspiratorially, this started with lard to promote the roast, then butter and sugar as usual, and finally, for this family, a handful of sesame seeds for additional fragrance. He even tells the secret source of Hainanese butter coffee (just as it sounds, coffee served with a knob of butter floating on the surface), designed to appease the dry throat that came with smoking opium. Of course, the flavour and added fragrance caught on, even for those who hadn’t been chasing the dragon. So today, on Kai Joo Lane where the upstairs opium dens once were plentiful, you can still get a cup of butter coffee long after the dens have closed their doors.
For Julian and Lynda, with 10 years in the business behind them, their traditions are important. The restaurant serves the Hainanese works, from the roti bakar to the chicken rice. They even put up the Hainanese pork and chicken chop, another fusion favourite with its gravy on the top and peas, carrots and coleslaw on the side. “It’s the culture,” he says. “ Everybody comes in and meets up, all kinds of ethnic groups. Everyone sits, talks and drinks!” But when it comes to coffee, still served in the old style mugs, he sources imported Robusta beans from Kopimas.
In search of the Sarawak bean
In Sarawak, sadly, the coffee served might be localised but is rarely local. Despite its neighbour’s success at creating a coffee economy, a coffee nickname (Java) and even a coffee process in the belly of the civet cat, the home state of the Cat City sees little cultivation. Black Bean Coffee and Tea on Ewe Hai Street boasts a local roast, sourcing Sarawak’s own Liberica and Robusta, but as a tiny hole in the wall – albeit bursting with customers – they can keep their supply up with demand. In reality, they are a rare coffeeshop in offering a Sarawak cup. In 2018, Sarawak produced only 20.7 metric tonnes, largely from small-scale indigenous growers for domestic consumption.
But, it turns out that Sarawak has a history with coffee cultivation, another tale of cultural crossover. Dr Bertha Chin and Raine Melissa Riman, inspired by a shared love of coffee, have turned their skills as academicians with Swinburne University to the Sarawak coffee question. Their adventures in the archives have uncovered a coffee narrative that is uniquely Sarawak. It is a story of the second Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke, who had numerous experiments with agriculture – in rubber, in pepper and, of course, in coffee. This last began in 1866 with the planting of Arabica beans – a sad failure due to the lack of elevation. A decade later, however, he switched to Liberica with seedlings brought over from Ceylon and a plantation on the slopes of Mount Matang was born.
It was tended by migrants shipped in from India for their expertise, many of them apparently insurgents against oppressive British Colonial rule in India. But they found a new home in a more inclusive Brooke state and this plantation proceeded to produce coffee until the early 20th century, exporting up to 290 pikuls (just over 17,000 kgs) per year through the Borneo Company. It inspired some coffee cultivation throughout Sarawak, spreading as far afield as Bintulu by 1888 through a network of indigenous smallholders, some of whom still plant to this day. Raine’s own uncle, for example, harvests his own near Kampung Benuk from trees over 30 years old and his wife home roasts with handfuls of spices from the kitchen – cardamom, cinnamon, whatever she can find.
The original plantation, however, declined and diversified, even switching to tea about halfway through its lifetime, before it disappeared completely under a cloud of mismanagement. Its legacy remains in the Sri Mariamman temple established at the top of Mount Matang but, even more so, in the families of the workers who chose to stay in Sarawak – about half the original number – who formed the heart of the Indian community that now peoples the modern state. But its existence is also inspiring a new line of coffee investigation as the search for a Sarawak specialty coffee is in full swing.
From Kopitiam to Coffee Centre
Coffee consumption has come a step up in Kuching in the last decade. A rash of new style coffee houses has opened – from Starbucks to Bing to Coffee Clinic to Coffee Obsession – and their more rarified air is filled with the mechanical chug of the imported coffee machine and the bark of the barista, offering the range of Italian favourites filled with frothed milk to the famously lactose intolerant Asian market. These have become increasingly popular hangouts for Kuching’s increasing hipster crowd. Many Sarawakians have spent time overseas and both tastes and incomes are changing, it seems.
The pioneer in this pack is Earthlings. This coffee workshop is a step up from all the rest. It was started by an enthusiastic home roaster and a psychologist with a passion for the café culture he had experienced in Melbourne, who loved the connections made over coffee which, in turn, inspired the name. When Dr Kenny Lee and Raven Kwok opened up in Sarawak, there was little to match them. The duo was forced to import all their machinery and pursue their own training. Kenny said that they had always envisaged a coffee centre, an example of the third wave of coffee consumption that is sweeping across the planet where single origin coffees are selected for their unique treatment from tree to specific terroir to single supplier, where great flavour and great service is key.
Raven shared that they never expected or even aimed to be mainstream in the current Sarawak market. Earthlings cannot command the giant takeaway trade of the world’s many capital cities where coffee is drunk at millions of desks. In Sarawak, their kind of coffee is a luxury item, he says. In fact, they only open at 10am and have to stay open until late, servicing instead the Sarawak personal, where groups of friends and colleagues linger over every cup and conversation. But this niche market is keeping them going and their coffee education courses, drawn from international coffee institutes, are steadily swelling the ranks of local connoisseurs and the local language with coffee terminology.
However, in spite of their adventures in single origin coffee, they rarely stock beans from Sarawak. There just simply isn’t the supply. So, they have embarked on new adventures in agriculture, hosting a coffee symposium in April 2019 and starting experiments in coffee cultivation. With a focus on Liberica, a bean that currently only accounts for 1% of the world’s crop, they are chasing a uniquely Sarawakian cup. They predict that the process of allelopathy, in which indigenous plant species interact with the coffee cherry, can create a uniquely Sarawakian flavour while providing Sarawak growers with a new cash crop to replace oil palm and rescue the region’s bio-diversity.
One day, perhaps, Sarawak will become a major coffee-producing region, sadly perhaps as other international coffee growers succumb to the effects of climate change. But until then, the Sarawak coffee scene is flourishing, from culture to agriculture. All agree that the kopitiam will continue, embedded as it is in Sarawakian tastes and lifestyles. But the niche market of specialty coffee in Sarawak is also growing, thanks to players like Earthlings. So nowadays, in Sarawak, coffee seekers can run the full range from the glamour of the gentrified coffee centre serving only the best beans to the clamour of the kopitiam where local tastes prevail. Either way, Sarawak is entering global coffee conversations while keeping up local conversations over coffee.
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