Coffee should be black as hell, strong as death, and sweet as love. Turkish proverb
Who knew Malaysia has a coffee industry? I didn't, not before planting myself here in Kuala Lumpur last year.
Where had I been all those years? A dedicated (or, if you like, addicted) first-thing-in-the-morning consumer for - yes - decades, I've sipped Sumatran, sampled Kenyan, poo-poohed Blue Mountain (did I miss something there? I wasn't wowed), fallen for Balinese, and come to prefer Papau New Guinean. Though I'm not one to hang out in coffee houses I've done my fair share of high-end bean browsing, but never ran into Malaysian.
No surprise, when you consider that for the last ten or so years coffee production here in Malaysia has held steady at only about 160,000 bags, or 10,000 tons, yearly. To put that in perspective: Malaysia produces just .01% of the world's coffee and lags far, far behind Asia's big three producers (India, Vietnam, and Indonesia).
The majority of Malaysia's cultivated land is planted in rubber trees and oil palms (Malaysia is a major player in the world rubber and palm oil markets). Coffee plants cover only 25,000 hectares or so (primarily in Kedah, Kelantan, Selangor, Terengganu, and Pahang states). What little coffee is grown in Malaysia is consumed here, and because there's no export dollars to be gained from the industry there's been no official emphasis on improving the crop's quality.
About 95% of Malaysia's coffee beans come from liberica plants, a little-known variety that's also grown in west Africa and accounts for less than 2% of the world's coffee (most coffee comes from arabica and robusta beans). A liberica tree can grow as tall as 18 meters; its leaves are large and leathery, it produces big fruits and seeds, and it's extremely hardy. Professional tasters describe the bean's flavor characteristics as "undesirable" - thin, harsh, acidic. All of which means that you're unlikely to find a Malaysian bean or blend on offer at your local specialty coffee dealer anytime soon.
It also means that there's a lot of dreck drunk here in Malaysia. But careful cultivation and skilled roasting can make even liberica beans shine. Some Malaysian roasters add sugar during the process, which lends a hint of caramel to the cup. Ipoh's famous 'white' coffee is roasted in butter (or, less desirably, margarine), which makes for one smooooooooth caffeine hit. Though mediocrity abounds, if one heads to the right places - old-style Chinese kopitiam (coffee shops) that boast a regular clientele, single vendors who attract queues, and more contemporary shops, geared to a younger Malaysian crowd, that focus on local brews - it's possible to strike black gold.
Coffee has probably been consumed in Malaysia since the 15th century, having migrated with Middle Eastern traders to the Sultanate of Malacca's ports not long after it appeared in Mecca and Medina, although it wasn't grown here until the British began cultivating it in the Cameron Highlands in the latter half of the 1800s. Malaysia's favored brew method, using a 'sock' or 'butterfly net' filter suspended in a pot of hot water (see above), might have been introduced by Chinese immigrants from the island of Hainan or by Indian Muslim immigrants in the 1800s.
This method of filtering results in a fragrant, strong (with its high caffeine content liberica is known in the industry as the 'no-doze coffee'), thickish cup of coffee. Though some folks take it black ('kopi o'), it's more often mellowed with a generous dose of sweetened condensed milk ('kopi') or with a mixture of sweetened condensed and evaporated milks ('kopi special', at least at some shops). Milk barely alters the color of this rich brew, which stands up well to ice.
Relative proximity to a tasty, restorative cup of local coffee is one of the joys of living - and traveling - in Malaysia. As a slow fooder I'm pained by the proliferation of international coffee chains that would obliterate local coffee traditions and standardize our choice of brews the world over. When I'm Italy I'll have a macchiato; in Istanbul I want my coffee black and thick enough to stand a spoon in. Here in Malaysia you'll no sooner find me in a Starbuck's than a McDonald's. Make it a kopi special please, preferably drunk in an aged, unfashionable kopitiam that places me in a local context and lets me know where I am - that's Kuala Lumpur, not Kansas City.
Where to find a good cup of coffee (readers, if you'd like to share your favorite spot for local coffee I'll update this list with your suggestions):
Kuala Lumpur - Yut Kee, Jalan Dang Wangi; Village Park, 5 Jalan SS 21/37, Damansara Utama.
Kuantan - Kemaman Coffee, corner of Jalans Baasah and Tun Ismail; Stalls behind the Kuantan wet market.
Kuala Terengganu - Ah Hung, 136 Jalan Bandar.