Kyo Pang, co-owner of the newly opened Kopitiam on Canal Street in Chinatown, is pulling off the rare and improbable. With remarkable concentration, she pours steaming Malaysian tea, teh tarik, from one aluminum pot to the other, lifting her hands above her head to extend the stream of tea. This is what is called “pulled tea” in Malaysia, which is something of a lost art in the Malaysian community in New York.
The return to tradition may be the hip thing to do these days. Sitting on a stool nearby is Poh Choo Sim, 27, a Malaysian resident of the Lower East Side, who is excitedly awaiting her first meal at Chinatown’s newly opened Kopitiam (literally “coffeehouse” in Malay). “I have not yet found a place in the city that offers pulled tea. Usually they offer instant tea because pulled tea is very hard to do,” she says.
“There is no place like this in New York City. There are plenty of Malaysian and Singaporean restaurants, but there are no kopitiams or places that serve small eats,” Sim said. “Most of the things in Chinatown cater to American tastes and a lot of places don’t offer certain dishes like the ones here — or if they do their flavor has been dulled over the years.”
Within minutes there are several small plates of food crowding the table: a stuffed crab ball served on a crab shell; a dish called pulut inti, blue sticky rice topped with brown coconut sugar and wrapped in a leaf; and pulut panggang, a roll of baked rice and lemongrass stuffed with spicy shrimp.
Pang, 30, is a third-generation nyonya, a term roughly meaning “female descendant of a foreigner.”
“My grandmother was a descendant of Chinese immigrants who moved to Malaysia when it was under British imperial control. My family still lives in Penang, a Malaysian city on the coast of the Strait of Malacca, which runs between the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian island Sumatra, which was a major shipping lane frequented by British and Chinese merchants,” she said with an enthusiastic smile.
Serena, 60, who immigrated from Malaysia and has lives in New York for the past 30 years, was especially excited about Pang’s heritage. “Nyonyas make the best desserts. Very flavorful. But there’s not much nyonya left now, only a handful. Most of the ones I know are here in America. A lot of Malaysians try to follow [nyonyas’ recipes], but there is always something missing,” she says.
Kopitiam serves coffee, tea, traditional sweets, breakfast, and some small lunch plates. Pang imports many of her ingredients directly from her family, who themselves ran a restaurant in Penang.
“A lot of my customers are people who left Malaysia a long time ago and a lot of them come in and tell me, ‘You have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for this,’” Pang says. “Yesterday a very, very old lady, maybe in her 70s or 80s, she came with her grandson and she was walking with her cane very slowly and she asked, ‘Do you sell nyonya dessert here?’ and her face lit up and she excitedly started telling her grandson about her stories when she was living in Malaysia and ate nyonya food and I felt so–” Pang’s voice trailed off as she looked up, beaming.
Kopitiam, 51B Canal Street, Chinatown; email@example.com