KL is overflowing with quirky cafés, but Malaysians never forget the original kopitiams where locals gather to catch up with friends and family over a coffee and a light bite. This daily ritual is engrained in their culture. Here is an overview of some of KL’s most popular chain coffee shops that have stood the test of time against foreign-style, modern cafés and bars.
1. HomeTown Hainan Coffee
HomeTown Hainan Coffee seems to be one of the less popular kopitiams in KL. I rarely see it bustling with people, however, their menu offers a nice range of quick-to-prepare Malaysian meals that will fill you up until dinnertime. The dishes are far from outstanding, but provide a decent level of flavour and fragrance to satisfy a grumbling stomach.
The Hainan chicken rice with beansprouts (RM14.90) came with soft and tender poached chicken. Two condiments were provuded; sweet chilli sauce that needed a little more of a kick and my preferred option; garlic and ginger sauce. The bed of bean sprouts upon which the chicken sat had been stir-fried with soy sauce, peppercorns and a touch of sesame. Their crisp texture paired well with the smooth chicken meat.
The chicken set also included a cabbage and spring onion broth which I greatly enjoyed. It was beautifully seasoned with a good vegetable flavour and the pieces of wilted cabbage were soft and far from bland. Unfortunately the rice was a little dry and didn’t have the alluring yellow tinge that one would expect from being cooked in tasty chicken broth. However, mixed in with the sauces, it filled the stomach.
The roti canai (RM3.30) was thin and flakey, with a slight sweetness, but a touch too sweet and oily for me.
The Lemon-rose-lychee drink (RM8.90) was sweet and fizzy, made with a sweet and floral rose syrup and garnished with 2 fresh-tasting lychee and lemon slices.
Malaysian coffee is not to my Western taste, therefore I thought I would try the espresso, hoping for something more similar to a European-style coffee. Bad decision. No wonder Malaysian coffee is full of creamy condensed milk and sugar – the espresso was extremely bitter.
I made a speedy decision to switch to tea and I didn’t hate it. Their hot tea with evaporated milk was very much on the sweet side, however, milky and warming, made with a smooth-tasting black tea.
PappaRich is more of a restaurant than kopitiam, with a much more extensive menu that the coffee shop chains. The smiley staff are attentive, looking over every now and again to check that customers have everything they need. The dining space at the Bangsar branch is semi-alfresco, giving a spacious feel where diners can watch the world go by. Their is also upstairs steading for an overhead view of the bustling streets.
Their traditional Malaysian staples are served quickly (although this cements my theory that dishes are most likely pre-prepared, pre-plated and microwaved). It is a ‘no-frills’ kind of cuisine; I cannot boast to have had the best meal of my life, but dishes were satisfying enough for a quick lunch before taking on the rest of the working day. It is necessary to order a few dishes due to the minuscule portions, but looking on the bright side, this means diners can sample a selection of foods and prices are fair.
Once again, I went for chicken and rice, however this time I paired my chicken with steamed glutinous rice. The chicken breast was tiny, but moist and had a tissue-thin skin which I much preferred to a thick and glutinous skin – this time I didn’t feel the need to peel it off. The chicken was placed on sliced of cucumber which had marinated in the sauce, becoming juicy and sweet.
Glutinous rice should be sticky and dense, but PappaRich’s was a little too cloying and chewy. The flavour, however, was pleasant; well-seasoned, gently spiced and a glossy brown-burgundy colour. It was topped with a juicy and flavoursome mushroom and some soft of mush with a lovely BBQ flavour that complemented the spices. This “mush” I speak of would usually be pork or Chinese sausage, however, this rice was listed as a vegetarian dish.
My final choice was the steamed bean curd rolls. The dainty rolls with filled with minced tofu, egg, carrot and spring onion; a nice light bite. The sweet chilli dipping sauce was rather gooey, so needed spooning onto the rolls, but the spice level was good.
The iced herbal tea with honey was disappointing. It was a decent honey-lemon tea, but I detected no trace of the health-shot herbs.
All things considered, head to PappaRich is you are in search of an light bite to tide you over until dinner, but don’t expect to be blown away by their heated-up plates and tiny portions.
3. The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf
Despite having dedicated its name to the beverage, I wouldn’t say that the coffee bean delivers excellence when it comes to coffee. However they do have a great range of teas. Try the aromatic and wintery chai tea with cinnamon, clove and ground ginger, available both neat or as a milky and sweet latte. Their Genmaicha green tea also deserved a mention; colloquially knows as “popcorn tea”, it is a combination of delicate jasmine tea leaves with roasted brown rice for a unique aroma and a light yellow hue. For a fruitier beverage, The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf present Tropical Passion or Pomegranate Blueberry teas, both of which balance sweetness with a slight sourness on the top of the tongue for a pleasant and refreshing beverage.
Skip the cakes; they don’t offend, but are not the most accomplished treats I have had in KL. Sandwiches and salads are good choices here. The tuna-mayonnaise sandwich has layers of flavour and is spiked with nuggets of onion and gherkins to cut through the creaminess – best with toasted ciabatta or as a wrap in my opinion.
Another favourite of mine is the citrus salad. It may well be made with tinned mandarin segments, but I am willing to overlook this as the flavour is great regardless and, lets face it, we all enjoyed a dessert of tinned fruit smothered in syrup and custard once upon a time. The salad combines the orange segments with sliced shallots, dried cranberries, crispy chicken bacon bits and flaked almonds over a bed of shredded Romain lettuce, drizzled in a light, sweet and citrusy vinaigrette.
(Apologies are in order – disaster has struck and I seem to have misplaced all photos of The Coffee Bean.)
Saving the best for last with Chawan; an upscale mamak-style kopitiam. Althought all of KL’s café chains seem to serve decent food for good value, Chawan is a standout, thundering into the lead with its generous portions of fragrant, flavourful and comforting Malaysian fare.
The staff were extremely friendly and very attentive, buzzing around like workers bees during the crowded lunch rush. It is a well-organised team, with different staff assigned to collecting dishes and glasses, washing up, serving food, getting the bill and of course the men behind the magic; the chef and dedicated baristas, churning out our delicious grub and coffee.
Following a recommendation, I chose the nasi tomato with ayam masak merah (RM12.90) from the wide selection of traditional Malay rice dishes. The rice was wonderfully fluffy; the loose grains spilled out of their perfect dome shape when teased with the fork. Aromatics, such as a thick piece of fresh ginger and cardamon pods, concealed themselves within the grains. The gentle tomato flavour tasted fresh and was the ideal rice dish to complement the spicy, sticky and sweet tomato chicken. The chicken itself was a little hit-and-miss; some parts fell obligingly off the bone, while others took a little more encouraging, clinging stubbornly to the bone. Eaten alone, the chicken may have been a little dry, but luckily the sauce was its saviour and I had no major complaints.
For me, the level of spice was idea; a nice kick, but not so powerful that I was left in a panicked sweat. The pickled vegetable side dish of sliced cucumber, carrot, red onion and sweet pineapple was crunchy and colourful; a great palette cleanser between mouthfuls.
The surprising highlight of the meal was the complementary bowl of dahl; creamy yellow lentils, soft courgette, carrot, potato and green beans submerged in a thick, spiced coconut sauce. It had a wonderfully balanced sweetness and was rich yet light; a bowl of comfort and perfect eaten with the tissue-thin, well-seasoned, and not at all oily papadums.
Somewhere within the dish, I caught a hint of anise flavour; by this time I had created rather a mess on the plate, thus I’m not sure whether this was in the rice of the accompanying dahl, either way, it was delightful.
Finally, to complete my feast I ordered the tofu bakar (RM5); pillows of crisp on the outside, bouncy in the middle tofu, marinated in what I think was fish sauce and soy and served with a spicy, glossy sauce flavoured with molasses and brimming with sesame seeds and crushed peanuts. I was defeated by the large portions, but extremely satisfied with my lunch.
This was all washed down with Chawan’s signature 3-layer iced coffee (RM6) which, in contrast to expectations from previous Malaysian coffee experiences, was not overly sweet. The 3 layers of espresso, condensed milk and _ remained in distinct layers that swirled together in cloud-like form when mixed with the spoon. Milky, yet light and refreshing and with notes of caramel.
Unlike the other cafés on this list, I was enticed back to Chawan for round two. This time I ordered the nasi kerabu, hypnotised by the bright blue colour of the rice (which I am sure was brimming with e-numbers). Chawan’s nasi kerabu (RM17.90) is served with ayam percik; chicken, in this case a leg and thigh joint, in a coconut and pineapple curry. The rice was surprisingly fragrant; strong with coconut and slightly floral-tasting. Much unlike the tomato rice I previously ate here, the nasi kerabu is made with sticky rice that creates a beautiful “mush” when combined with the curry sauce and extremely spicy sambal.
The dark chicken meat shredded easily off the bone and was texturally delightful; soft, moist meat with thin, crispy and slightly charred skin. There was not a great amount of sauce, however, it was creamy and light with balanced spiciness and sweetness. In fact, despitre having though that a ladle-full of sauce would have been nice spooned over the rice, it was not needed. The flavours shone through alone and the little sauce that coated the chicken was perfectly sufficient thanks the strength of its flavour.
The side dishes were extremely complementary and provided even more layers of texture. The first was a mixture of toasted, shredded coconut, finely chopped spring onion, bean sprouts and thin ribbons of onion. The second was a firm-textures, bright orange-red salted duck egg – and my goodness was it salty! A pile of crunchy, puffed prawn crackers completed the trio. Crackers are not usually to my taste, but I enjoyed these; there was no flavour of the oil, only rich prawn and a slight smokiness from the spices.
Chawan boasts an outstanding range of Malaysian local coffees, each one named after the town from which is hails. The Ipoh and Kemaman coffees come highly recommended, the latter being a great favourite amongst KL’s local coffee-holics.