1 August 2013

Coffee Series Part 3: Malaysians' favourite "kopi" varieties

Welcome to the the third and final segment of my 3-part "Coffee Series" posts.  In Part 1, I wrote of the difference between an espresso, an Americano and a long black espresso, while in Part 2, it was that between caffe latte, cappuccino and flat white.  Having written about three Western coffee recipes in each of my first two posts, I thought it apt that I should instead share with you now three popular local coffee beverages here in Malaysia.

Unlike espresso-based beverages which are almost always made with premium Arabica beans, many - if not most - Malaysians prefer their coffee (or as we say, "kopi") brewed using robusta beans which carry a stronger, harsher taste - often with a grain-like overtone and "peanuty" aftertaste.  Some might describe the taste as "musty".  
Although robusta beans carry a higher caffeine content, they are generally inferior in quality compared to Arabica beans, which explains why a cup of kopi also costs substantially less than an espresso.  Here, a generous 12oz serving typically costs between the equivalent of US$0.50 for a black and US$1.00 with milk added.  In hotels and upmarket restaurants, expect to pay up to four times as much.

If ever you come this way, you'll find that literally every coffee shop in Malaysia sells the three beverages I'm about to introduce to you; such is their overwhelming popularity.  Speaking of coffee shops, here's a pic of a typical traditional Malaysian coffee shop, or "kopitiam" as they're affectionately known here ("tiam" being "shop" in some Chinese dialects).  They may not be as well-appointed as your typical espresso bar but, with the right company, they're just as great and cozy a place as any to hang out at.

Traditional Malaysian coffee shop
(Picture from Google Images)

1.  Right, I'll start with "Kopi O".  This is a traditional coffee recipe commonly found and consumed in this part of the world.  It is essentially strong, black coffee - hence the term "O" which means black in the Chinese Hokkien dialect.  What makes Kopi O so agreeable to the palate is the ground coffee used to make the beverage; they're actually processed from coffee beans which have been roasted with butter (yes, butter) and sugar; so you can imagine its heavenly aroma.

Kopi O

The beverage is made by pouring piping hot water into a pitcher through a finely-meshed "sock" (which resembles a windsock) containing huge amounts of ground coffee.  The coffee in the pitcher is then transferred into a cup or glass ready to be served.  That's it.... it's that simple.  What Kopi O lacks in giving its drinker that instant "wake-up call" like an espresso does, it more than makes up by its divine taste (think butter!), sheer volume (8-12oz against a 1oz single espresso) and how very well it complements almost every kind of Malaysian fare, especially our varieties of local breakfasts.

Kopi O can be consumed either piping hot or ice-cold, in which case it's called "Kopi O Peng" ("peng" being "ice" in the Hokkien dialect).  Either way, a strong, well-concocted Kopi O is a most satisfying refreshment that's suitable for consumption at any time of the day.

The traditional way of making Kopi O
(Picture from Google Images)

2.  Kopi Nai (pronounced "nigh", meaning "milk" in Chinese) - or just "kopi" in some parts - is very simply Kopi O with sweetened condensed milk added.  Although for me it's "the more, the sweeter, the better", fact is with health consciousness steadily on the rise in the country, many tend to order their Kopi Nai "less sweet" (i.e. with less sweetened milk) these days.  To be honest, I feel this totally defeats the gist of ordering this beverage in the first place.... but that's only my personal opinion.

Like Kopi O, Kopi Nai is excellent taken ice-cold (by adding semi-crushed ice cubes) and is a most welcome form of rehydration on a typical hot Malaysian day.  Commonly consumed at breakfast, the beverage complements kaya (sweet coconut and egg jam) on toast particularly well and makes for a great "pick-me-upper" especially when prepared strong.  Good stuff.

Kopi Nai; note that condensed milk sitting at the bottom

3.  Kopi C.  How this beverage came to be so-named, I haven't the faintest idea (trust me, it's not an alphabetical thing).  What I can tell you though is that Kopi C is basically Kopi O with evaporated milk and sugar added.  Made properly, this is a well-balanced coffee beverage which offers drinkers the pleasant combination of strong coffee and light milk.  Compared to Kopi Nai, it's "lighter" and (some say) smoother on the palate.  Like its two cousins above, Kopi C is equally good consumed hot or cold.

Kopi C

Kopi C (left) and Kopi Nai after stirring-in

So there you have it; three very popular local coffee beverages which you'll find them served at nearly every coffee shop in Malaysia, be it Chinese, Malay or Indian.  They're inexpensive, immensely aromatic and offer a pleasant alternative to espresso lovers.  Despite me not selling local coffees at my coffee shop, I'd nonetheless recommend them to visitors without any reservation because they're really that good.  Do try them if you ever visit Malaysia.  Believe me, you'll love 'em.

Which of the three do you reckon you'd fancy?  Have you visited Malaysia before?


  1. Enjoyed reading this Vincent and enjoyed trying those coffees during our time in Malaysia. Happy memories :-)Thank you!

  2. This is a very well-written article regarding coffee and the Malaysian coffee-drinkers' preferences. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and absorbing the info, and I like the pics. Just a though here: could Kopi C (just like Teh C), an abbreviation of Kopi with Cream, albeit the Malaysian version of 'Cream'? :D

    1. I like your lateral thinking, Ismail. Let me know when you find out the answer.