Penang, my home town, is dotted with eateries called “coffee shops” or in local lingo “kopitiam”. These are places patronized by a spectrum of humanity from all walks of life. Here, the food is cheap, mostly good with a variety flavours. One can dine in the open air of a sidewalk or within the premises, at folding or marble topped tables, which usage is lessening as the higher end ‘kopitiam’ and food court establishments use such furniture to create an ambience of days-gone-by. The theme in the city now is -heritage. So, the old furniture, the old pictures, photographs, decor and any antique bric-a-brac, long hidden in dark store rooms and basements have come out to see the light of day to create this nostalgic ambience.
Still the ‘kopitiam’ like the European cafe or British pub is the place where many people go to air their woes to each other, enjoy a cheap meal, make deals over lunch or drinks, or simply go solo to take a break. When you do that you’re usually free to be the fly on the wall, just sipping iced-tea or slurping noodles whilst letting your eyes wander from table to table. I frequently find myself doing that as I’m usually on my own, dashing around trying to get necessary chores done. Lunch at the kopitiam is usually a welcome break and a chance to look in wonder again at the varied patrons of this age old Malaysian establishment, not found any where else in the world in the form it takes in the home country.
The way it operates is somewhat unique, in that the building is owned by one proprietor who is usually the owner of the premises, or a main tenant who lets/sub-lets small stall spaces to food operators specializing in a specific variety of cuisine. What I mean is that each operator usually cooks/sells one sort of dish, possibly with a few variations of the same to offer choice to the customer and increase their income. I have not seen this sort of business set up in any of the countries I’ve been to.
In many other countries, proprietors of cafes or restaurants are the sole food operators for their establishments. In contrast, the ‘kopitiam’ set up allows flexibility in the kinds of cuisine made available in the food establishment and the possibility of adding on or shutting down less popular dishes, at no cost to the proprietor and limited loss to the food operator offering that particular cuisine. The food operator has the choice of moving elsewhere where demand for what they have to offer is higher, or vary what is on offer.
The proprietor can pull in different food operators offering a different cuisine to ‘fill up’ a stall or add this new operator on to expand the variety of cuisine available. Patrons are then, presented with a ‘menu’ with a wide variety to choose from.
In these establishments, one walks around this unwritten menu and orders food directly from the specific stall offering the dish of choice. Not exactly self-service, just a little bit of exercise before sitting down in anticipation of a steaming hot bowl of noodle soup or fresh fried oysters in egg. The fresh juice, hot beverage or soft drink is ordered from the informal waiter/waitress who comes to the table to take the unwritten order and shouts it out to those preparing the drinks in the kitchen. Where in the world do people do that?
When I was little, my family would go to a very noisy cafe for Sunday breakfast. All the waiters would be shouting orders at the same time in loud resonant tones. Yet, the orders were usually 100% accurate when the food came to the table. This was a Chinese dim sum place, and it was simply amazing, despite the racket.
As I’ve said, there seems to be nowhere else in the world using this unique system which wholly hangs on the efficiency of a worker’s memory, hearing and speed of comprehension of what a customer wants and expects. Only in my own homeland.