I returned home to Malaysia harboring a fantasy of rediscovering 'local coffee'. Coffee is grown here in South east Asia, and after trying pretty much every bean out there, I seem to have a natural taste bias for the bold, earthier flavor of Sumatra, which has been by preferred choice for many years. The fantasy is fueled by a childhood memory of being in a school room that happened to be close to a coffee roasting enterprise. The smell of coffee to this day takes me right back to the the sultry heat of that classroom where the pungent smell pierced the dullness of afternoon classes. I was psyched to think I might perhaps discover a local, home grown, home roasted coffee.
Well that fantasy was smashed to smithereens. At first, I was just bewildered at the contents listed on bags of local coffee being only 60 percent coffee and the rest sugar, margarine and sometimes other ingredients like flour. Immersing myself in a little coffee 101, I discover that Malaysia largely grows Coffea Liberica, with a less than flavorful bean that the local coffee industry has learnt to enhance by roasting with butter/margarine and sugar. Coffea Arabica is what dominates global coffee production and is known for its flavor. It's a little more delicate than Coffea Canephora or Robusta which it is often blended with for both it's easier cultivation and higher caffeine content. Sumatra coffee is Arabica beans grown on Sumatra, whereas my local home kopi is adulterated Liberica beans grown here and entirely consumed by the local market.
It's particularly saddening as there is also a vibrant kopitiam (local coffee hangout ) culture here that includes the original kopitiam coffee houses that still thrive replete with old school coffee pots and the newer chains that combine well executed vintage aesthetics (see pic on right with marble topped table, chinese stools and coffee cup with botanical motif) and modern conveniences like free wifi and Starbucks ubiquity - there's at least one in every mall. They usually have a great menu with local and healthful alternatives to pastries and cakes but, the rasion d'etre is a bitter, greasy, sweet beverage whose only saving grace is it's fix of caffeine. Why not offer some better tasting alternatives, I asked the owner of a small family run chain of kopitiams with heritage roots ? His answer - the locals love the taste of the local brew, so we don't see a need to change. Sigh.
All however is not lost. If I can't connect with a local grown cup of coffee, a major consolation prize is that I can connect with the plant itself, in fact I am the proud owner of one, see pic on the left. I recently learnt that coffee flowers have a perfume that is jasmine like, so it's a nice add to my perfume plants collection and bought at the same place mentioned in my last post that doesn't label its plants so I have no idea which type it is.
Thankfully too, Singapore, just an hour away is playing ball with global coffee trends and tastes. There are a few enterprises that roast Arabica beans and is even home to a few artisanal coffee establishments that I plan to check out. Meanwhile, there is the old fall back Starbucks - there's one here in Johor Bahru and I have since found a small coffee vendor in one of the markets who sells a Bali coffee bean that is quite good. Not quite my beloved Sumatra but my new found coffee guy is quite the character with his old school giant ladled scoop, glass fronted metal display tins and vintage grinder. After much banging to ensure every last powdered grain is set free and right before he puts it into into the bag, he completes his ritual by extending the ladle, inviting me to take a whiff while simultaneosly showing me the thumbs up and there I am back there in that classroom staring at the afternoon sky through wooden shutters the aroma of coffee blurring yesterday and today.