Kyo Pang's Kopitiam: Brewing Coffee, Building Community

Kyo Pang's Kopitiam: Brewing Coffee, Building Community


 It’s Tuesday, the middle of the morning. A line of people huddle inside, waiting to order and escaping the thunderstorm all at once. Families, friends, couples sit side by side, digging into kaya toast, nasi lemak, and fish ball soup, as the noise of the cafe doesn’t slow down. I sit with a cup of iced Penang coffee. A community builds up around me.

The space is Kopitiam in the Lower East Side, a casual cafe bringing Nyona cuisine to New York. I chatted with the owner and head chef, Kyo Pang, on the relationship between food, place, and memory, and its impact on the establishment of Kopitiam.


BISKIT: Can you tell me about the start of Kopitiam, and more so what sort of memories you were drawn to when starting?

KYO PANG: Kopitiam means coffee shop in Malaysia, so when someone says they are going to Kopitiam, they’re simply going to a coffee shop. I grew up in Penang, which is known to be a street food paradise, and there are so many Kopitiams all around. These are usually run by families for generations, and each family typically has a certain Kopitiam that they go to for generations as well so there is this unconventional relationship with the owners, this symbiosis. The owners know all this history about families even when they aren’t related or aren’t the closest of friends. And so I found this sort of harmony, between space and individual, to be lacking in New York. I moved a lot around New York and I found myself even not visiting the places I used to go to because it was too inconvenient or something like that. But in Malaysia, even if you move half an hour or an hour away, we would still go to the same Kopitiam, not necessarily for the food, but for the familiarity.

Kyo Pang in our Frequency Lavender Shirt at Kopitiam, NYC 


BISKIT: Wow, that’s a beautiful way to bring a communal space in New York. How about your background with food, could you tell me about that?

KYO: So I didn’t go to culinary school. My parents owned a restaurant, started by my grandfather, which they further expanded. I started cooking at the age of 7, because as the oldest daughter, I am responsible for keeping our family together and to keep us running. So I ended up spending a lot of time in the kitchen, learning those practical skills expected of me. But my parents raised me with a sense of shame in the restaurant business, where I should only aspire for a white-collar job and not work in the kitchen, so I grew up with that mindset and moved to New York when I was about 17. I aimed at working in public relations and production, but one day, one thing led to another, and I saw my dad fall into a mid-life crisis. And that hurt, that was painful to see this man that I so deeply admire go through this.

I was reading about a Korean American girl who started as a fashion editor and then moved into food blogging and eventually became a chef. She talked about how the shift was provoked by the loss of her mother, and her desire to reconnect with her roots through food. I felt somewhat similar, after learning about my dad, and decided to quit my job to start a Kopitiam.

I started selling on the street markets, something my mother was not the most proud of, and around the same time I came out to her, so there were so many big life decisions going around. But that’s where it began, a desire to create a space of community and service, just like my parents did.

Kopitiam Kitchen


BISKIT: I think jumping from that, what’s a specific food that you associate with or reminds you of a certain place?

KYO: There’s a Kopitiam in Penang, where I had my first white coffee, which was owned by this old man who brought out my coffee. He would usually sit outside the Kopitiam, reading a newspaper, but this man knew everything about me and my family because our family has been going there for generations. I didn’t really know this man, but the fact that he understood my family and brought out my coffee even when his hands were shaking felt like home. I was about 7 or 8 then, and I still remember that man and his coffee. His white coffee reminds me of warmth.

Kyo making Kopi 


BISKITDo you think such a tie to food establishes your understanding of community? 

KYO: Yeah of course! I remember asked my dad why he didn’t push further or expand his restaurant further and he said that he simply wanted a place for people to connect. I never understood that until I realized one day that our family served 4 generations of people. My dad would go to each table and take all the orders by memory, my mother would write it all down, mostly because she has better handwriting. He took care of these people and they came back for care and soul put into the environment. I find food to be the key to connect the soul and heart, and develop this tie to a community.


BISKIT: How do you think the connection between food, places, and the feelings surrounding it affect memories, both past and present?

KYO: This is very abstract, wow. 

I think a lot about the first time memories, and how locked in those memories are when we try a certain food for the first time. There’s an immediacy towards those memories and it always comes back to us, especially when we also think about authenticity.

 I often hear people come into Kopitiam and tell me that they’re from the same hometown, but more so on how authentic they find the food. On the other hand though, there are people who come in from different Malaysian states and tell me that my food is not Malaysian at all and not at all similar to what they grew up eating. So to a certain degree, memory provides perspective and an understanding of how abstract authenticity is, especially when a lot of us have immigrated to the US, so the memories of childhood food feel more nuanced with the addition of more cultures. To me, authenticity is the original taste, it’s what your tongue remembers at an instant.


Frequency Lavender Shirt


BISKITWhat’s a memory of a food that has changed from your childhood?

KYO: Kuih Talam, which is sea-salted coconut milk layered on top of a pandan cake base. I used to only eat the base because it was sweet, and I remember meeting someone who also ate it the same way I did. He told me how every child did that, only eating the sweet and not the salted part. As I have grown up though, I now eat the entire dessert, both sweet and savory, because I understand the harmony in having both, without compartmentalizing flavors in food. 


Interview by Sahana Srinivasan

Images by Suchitha 



Website Instagram