We are in one of the kopitiams , small coffee joints that dot Kuala Lumpur. Even as we take in the invigorating aroma at an Old Town White Coffee outlet, coffee master Tansen Cheang, brings us cups of the frothy creamy Malaysian coffee. “Coffee is is an all-time choice for Malaysians,” he says. And, there is a wide range of the beverage on offer — kopi tarik (pulled coffee), kopi peng (thick iced coffee), kopi O (black coffee), kopi cham (mixture of three parts of coffee and seven parts of milk tea) and many others based on various flavours and combinations.
However, there is one coffee that is rooted in history and taken seriously by coffee aficionados in Malaysia. That is the iconic ‘White Coffee’ from the town of Ipoh, which has been rated among the top three coffee destinations in Asia by Lonely Planet .
Characterised by a strong, nutty flavour, this pale brown-coloured white coffee is rich, velvety and sweet, and is one of the most sought-after drinks by both locals and tourists in Malaysia. “The speciality of white coffee has more to do with the roasting method than the beans,” explains Tansen. “The trademark brew is a mixture of arabica, robusta and liberica beans in a secret proportion that is roasted in palm oil margarine, which adds a unique texture and flavour to the beans.”
The history of white coffee goes to the 19th Century, when the town of Ipoh in the Perak State of Northern Malaysia was a major centre of tin mines. It is said that Chinese introduced white coffee, by adding sweetened condensed milk to the black coffee that the English had. “The acidic black coffee was not palatable to the Chinese and they modified the taste to suit their palate. Later, the first-generation white coffee underwent a series of refinements to arrive at a standard recipe. It is seen as an indigenous culinary invention by the population of Ipoh,” informs Tansen. “As no sugar or wheat is added to the beans while roasting, it gives the beans a lighter shade and that is one reason for it being called ‘white coffee’. However, neither the coffee nor the bean is white. It is just that the Chinese named it ‘white sweet coffee’ as opposed to the black bitter variant that was prevalent before.”
“The coffee is also considered healthier, as the beans have no caramelised sugar in them,” adds Tansen. The coffee chain Old Town White Coffee specialises in the signature brew and has over a 100 outlets across Malaysia, serving a dozen variations of the drink. “Though there are wacky flavours on the menu, the classic white coffee is still the best selling number.”
“Coffee drinking is an elaborate affair in Malaysia, that is accompanied with a range of snacks as well,” says Randy Liow, executive chef at Grand Seasons Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Coffee and kaya toast is indeed the go-to combo, apart from hors d’oeuvres such as Pie Tee, a Chinese tart with a crispy outer coat stuffed with sliced spring onions, carrots and prawns and topped with shrimp sauce and sambol . It is a standard choice with teh tarik (pulled tea) or coffee.
(The writer was in Malaysia on invitation from Tourism Malaysia)