Nasi lemak is considered the national dish of Malaysia, and here at Kopitiam it’s made and served the traditional way. Anchovies and peanuts are mixed together in a spicy sambal, then topped over rice along with cucumber slices and hard-boiled eggs. The ingredients and visual seem simple enough, but the bold, slightly spicy and fishy flavors are quite complex. Halfway through the bowl I was already planning my next trip to get it again.
Kyo, the co-owner and only cook at Kopitiam (“coffee house” in Malaysian), takes great care with her dishes, making sure the quality and consistency go hand-in-hand. She runs the shop with her girlfriend Nan, and Kyo’s godfather (and occasionally Nan’s mother) helps with prep. Kyo works with an importer to get teas, coffees and spices from Malaysia, but whichever spices aren’t accessible through them, she gets from her siblings.
She was born in the state of Penang, Malaysia, and is a third generation Baba-Nyonya. They’re descendants from China’s royal family who lived in the palaces. When the empire began to fall, Baba-Nyonyas fled by ship to various countries in Asia and adopted local culture. Many married sailors docked at the ports and created their own traditions.
As second- and third-generation children often are, Kyo was discouraged from becoming a cook because her parents wanted her to study and have a more stable career. However, Baba-Nyonyas are very religious Buddhists, and every 1st and 15th of the month she’d help her mom and grandparents make kuih, sweets and desserts for celebrating and praying.
Those sweet recipes are featured at the cafe, and the savory ones are courtesy of her dad, who once ran a famous restaurant in Malaysia. His influence can be found in the chilled spicy sesame noodles. These springy, freshly made noodles are slicked in just the right amount of sauce for a deep sesame flavor and a slight kick from Malaysian red chili peppers. They’re topped with cucumber slices and hard-boiled eggs, and the former adds a refreshing bite while the latter provides a slightly heartier contrast.
Kyo doesn’t want Kopitiam to turn into a bigger restaurant, instead hoping it remains true to its name as a cozy place that serves drinks and a few small snacks. One of them, the stuffed crab ball, is only available on weekends. This snack runs out quickly, but it’s well worth an early trip to Kopitiam. Each ball is filled with a ground-up mixture of squid, pork, scallions and crab meat, then baked and served with a mild sambal. Kyo also offered us a dollop of a very spicy one, and I found that mixing the two together provided the perfect flavor profile to go with the crab balls.
Kyo says she serves her food the way she’d make and serve it to herself at home. These dishes, influenced by the Baba-Nyonyas and their cooking, are hard to find even in Malaysia, much less in New York City. There’s a story behind the food, the culture and the shop, and Kyo is very open about sharing it with Kopitiam’s guests.
51B Canal St (map)
New York, NY 10002