Cover Story
Down Under Appeal
Grace Lim 
The Red Bean Bag
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Nothing beats the aroma of freshly brewed coffee in the morning. In recent years, Malaysians have become more and more discerning about their choice of java, moving on from international chains to artisanal coffee joints in what is called the third wave of coffee movement.

Whether it is a tiny space or an industrial loft, some with more character than others, these cafés are sprouting up all over the country from Kuala Lumpur to Kuching. Most of them have one thing in common – they take cues from the café culture in Australia, particularly the city of Melbourne. There, cafés can be found on almost every street, including industrial zones where old factories are repurposed into hip joints that contributed to a boom in coffee drinkers.

Here in Kuala Lumpur, one name should be familiar to coffee connoisseurs – The Read Bean Bag. Located in Publika, it was one of the first to introduce the so-called Melbournian café culture here when it opened in 2011.

Owners Lee Yew Kheong and Lin Lee had spent some time in Australia before returning to Malaysia in the middle of the last decade. Lee studied in Melbourne while Lin lived in Sydney for 10 years. “We were missing the café scene in Australia so much that we thought it would be a great idea to quit our jobs and run our own café,” laughs Lin, who is an architect by training.

“In Australia, the focus is on artisanal or specialty coffee. People are serious about their coffee and there is a great appreciation for it. That was absent in our coffee culture back then. We wanted to bring back the coffee that we had enjoyed drinking,” Lee adds.

Lin recalls that their former head chef, now business partner, Ryan Cheah was sceptical about an Australian-style café; he was sure it would not take off as Malaysians would still go to their regular mamak.

“He told us that we were nuts. However, one weekend Ryan came to the café only to find it packed and that there was a queue outside. He was gobsmacked. All he could do was stare at the crowd,” Lin chuckles. “But I think there was a need for it. When you experience something good, sometimes you just want to share it.”

What stood out for them about the Australian cafés was the ambience. “I always noticed how cosy the space was. That, and the menu, which was always different and interesting. Of course, the coffee was always good.”

Breakfast Thieves

Good vibes

Ambience is something that the founders of Breakfast Thieves feel is important as well. In fact, their popular café in APW Bangsar is a faithful replica of the original outlet in Melbourne, which resides in a former chocolate factory.

Co-founder Edwin Koh was excited when a space opened up at APW, which is an old printing factory. “The Melbourne café is located in Fitzroy, and it is special because it feels quaint. It’s away from the main street in a rather quiet area. APW offers these elements as well. We were also excited about APW because we could create our own space and elevate it,” he says.

In Melbourne, the café is known for its Malaysian flavours for brunch. One of the most popular items is the Botak Chin hot porridge with a piece of perfectly caramelised char siew. The KL outlet, however, is pork-free.

While food presentation and plating play an important part in the whole aesthetic, Koh notes that Melbournians are not so obsessed with taking pictures of food. “It’s mostly tourists and students who do that. We saw the service staff ‘scolding’ the customers for taking too much time taking pictures, not because they were rude but because they were concerned about food getting cold!”

Koh agrees that the boom of cafés is attributed to the tendency of Malaysians to follow trends, and the fact that many of the younger generation either studied or are studying in Australia

“We have a lot of students returning from Australia who are quite entrepreneurial. They want to be their own boss and perhaps the easiest thing that comes to mind is open a café,” he opines.

Of course, not everything translates well from Melbourne to Kuala Lumpur – for instance, the prices. Koh shares that a good coffee is usually priced from A$3 – A$4 (RM9 – RM12) a cup, which is affordable in Australia.

He adds: “Milk is also expensive here. Australian milk is fresh and if you use different milk, the coffee won’t taste the same. So a lot of cafés  here use imported milk, driving the cost of a cup of coffee further up.”

Azmanhadri Hashim, or Hadri, can relate to that. The founder of Thursdvys recounts his first experience in the coffee industry when he was studying in Melbourne. He found a job in a café and only had one hour of training before he was left to his own devices.

Thursdvys


A regular customer walked into the café and ordered her usual flat white. Hadri had to make the coffee three times for her, but even then he didn’t quite get the right taste that the customer wanted.

“That was when I realised how important coffee was to these people. That episode made me take coffee-making more seriously, and I eventually fell in love with it.”

Hadri had his life pretty much cut out for him in Melbourne with a corporate job waiting after he graduated. But he had to return home to be with his ailing father, who later passed away. He worked in a number of cafes here before opening Thursdvys.

“I found the café culture is a way of life in Australia. These cafés are able to grow because they have the locals’ support. The scene in Melbourne is getting stronger and it’s an important hub for specialty coffee. I remember that we would make up to 300 cups of coffee in the first hour of the morning,” he says.

Hadri says that they were lucky to open when café hopping was still trendy, as he feels that it is starting to run its course now. “What helps a café stand out is its character. When I was in Melbourne, I loved going to cafés and watching people. Every café had its own unique personality, whether it was the design, the music, the food or the service. You never feel alone because it felt like you’re having coffee with everyone there. That’s what I wanted to replicate at Thursdvys, that friendly vibe.”

 

Nice to see

For the trio behind Pan & Tamper, which opened in 2016, how the food looks was their key selling point. Ian Eu and Vicca Ng had studied and worked in Melbourne while Brendan Tee was based in Spain for several years.

Pan & Tamper is a result of them wanting to explore their respective interests – Eu was a barista, while Ng and Tee were aspiring chefs.

“Everyone in Melbourne is a foodie and there’s always a new food trend,” Ng says. “When we were studying there, Japanese fusion was a big thing. We went back recently and found that a lot of the cafés are now serving Thai and Vietnamese fusion. There’s a lot of soft shell crab served with cilantro, shallots and mint in your bread and eggs.”

Eu believes that this is due to the average Australian’s active lifestyle. “Healthy eating is big there. Plus, they do a lot of walking. Cafés also open early, usually 7am or 8am. If you don’t do that, you lose about 25% of the morning crowd business. They don’t spend a lot of time in cafés and it’s usually a grab and go affair in the morning, but during the lunch hour it is packed and sometimes you have to queue for hours,” he observes.

Over time, Pan & Tamper has built a reputation for its beautifully plated dishes but the owners had to compromise sometimes. Ng gives the example of the inclusion of pasta on the menu.

“We didn’t want to have it at first, but many customers walked in and asked for pasta. Even friends and family asked for it, so we gave in. In Melbourne, you don’t get typical dishes like a big breakfast set. They serve ramen where the noodles come in a bowl and the soup in a teapot, and you pour the soup into the bowl when you’re ready to eat. We try to do the same here,” she says.

Clearly, fusion is a big thing in Australia but it is also popular all over the world. On a recent trip to Barcelona, Tee noticed how restaurants are serving beetroot buns with kimchi even though there was not a Korean restaurant in sight.

“There are even pau (Chinese buns) and jackfruit; some places even have curries. It really surprised me but in a good way,” Tee says.

In terms of artisanal coffee skill, Eu opines that we do not lag behind our Western counterparts. “One major difference is that they do not care for latte art. The general perception here is that if there is no latte art, the coffee has to be bad,” he laughs.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 271.