Origin of Kopitiam

The word “Kopitiam”, literally means “coffee shop”, is derived from the Malay word for coffee and the Hokkien word for shop.

It remains intrinsically a backbone of the Malaysian food culture originated by the emergence of traditional kopitiams, which were oftenly family-owned entities that were handed down from one generation to another.

Its historical origin can be traced to the Old Malaya days when it was born out of a fusion of the cultural mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians. It remains a part and parcel of the Food & Beverage (F&B) culture and culinary lifestyle of all peoples in Malaysia.

Often the social nucleus of town centres, the kopitiam was-and still is-the rendezvous place to meet with friends and acquaintances over a cup of coffee/teh tarik or toasted bread & kaya (malaysian jam) or signature Malaysian coconut rice (nasi lemak) over breakfast, lunch, tea time, dinner or supper.

Due to the popularity of branded coffee parlours and lifestyle cafes in the late1990s and early 2000s, a new breed of modern kopitiams had emerged focusing on creating a comfortable ambience and serving up an extensive food menu to match their beverage offerings.

This new age kopitiam offers the classic food and drinks combined with modern conveniences such as piped in music, air-conditioning, attractive interior design and Wi-Fi connection.

Soon thereafter, modern/new age kopitiams began mushrooming all over the major cities in the country as branded chain stores by taking strategic cues from Starbucks, Coffee Bean & tea Leaf, etc. by serving up the proven formula of comfortable ambience, spacious seating and signature local food & beverages

Over the past ten years, it is an undisputable fact that new age/modern kopitiams have earned a dominant position in the F&B industry in Malaysia as evidenced by its ubiquitous presence in the marketplace.

Origin of Hainanese in Kopitiam

The Chinese immigrants from Hainan Island of China, known as Hainanese, began to migrate to Malaya and North Borneo from the 19th century onwards, albeit in much smaller numbers than the Chinese immigrants from other parts of China.

They were one of the last, or rather, the slowest of the batch of Chinese immigrants to come to Malaya. So by the time they came, most of the trades had been taken up by other Chinese.

So when they came to Malaya, there were only two trades left, either running rest houses or being cooks for the “white rajahs/colonial masters”.

By working in the kitchen and cooking for these white colonial masters, the Hainanese were the first to create fusion food such as the famous Hainanese chicken chop with baked beans, french fries & cold salad as well as lamb stew in claypot.

The Hainanese were employed as cooks by white British residents, Malay royalty & wealthy Straits Chinese families, while others were engaged in food catering business or the fishery business and formed the largest dialect group in Kemaman district of Terengganu and Pulau Ketam of Selangor as well as sizable communities in Penang and Johor Bahru. Smaller communities of Hainanese are also found in Sarawak and Sabah, where they work as coffee shop owners and are mainly found in large towns and cities.

In Malaysia, the Hainanese are one of the earliest entrepreneurs to operate food catering services. During the colonial era, they played a key role in dishing up delicious food & brewing roasted coffee, which naturally led them to opening up family restaurants and coffee shops/kopitiams, as well as also becoming professional cooks.

Signature food & beverages include chicken chop, chicken rice, fried mee, toasted bread with kaya, lamb stew, roasted coffee & tea.

In a nutshell, the Malaysian Hainanese are generally renowned for their culinary skills and signature cuisines judging by their historical trade as cooks in the kitchens of the colonial masters after their migration from China to old Malaya.