An Interview With Moonlynn Tsai And Kyo Pang Of Kopitiam, NYC
Hello Moonlynn and Kyo, thank you for agreeing to do this interview with us! It's amazing what you do — opening a restaurant serving Malaysian cuisine in NYC! What has Kopitiam been up to recently?
Moonlynn: Hi! Thank you so much for having us! I’ve been fangirling over BooksActually and can’t wait to visit one day!
2019 has been a whirlwind of a year—we opened late June of 2018 and just celebrated our first birthday back in June. It’s been fun seeing the birth, to what I like to call infancy and now feel we’re approaching our toddler years—so like a human baby, we’re working on making sure the shop can stand on its own two feet and getting it to the point of being efficient and self-sustaining and really honing in on customer service with our awesome team.
We’ve also been very blessed with the support from the community. We’re so grateful.
It’s important to both Kyo and I to give back to this wonderful community so we’ve also been doing a lot of collaborations and givebacks—most recently for Pride we packaged up and sold rainbow stainless steel straws where 100% of the proceeds went to The Center an LGBTQIA+ community center in NYC.
People from different regions have different tastes. Are there any dishes on Kopitiam's menu that you didn't expect to be popular to the American palate? Or is good food still good food no matter where you are?
Moonlynn: Malaysian food is very underrepresented in the States. The delicious flavors and aromas of condiments such as the belachan, sambal, or ikan bilis can at times be a bit foreign for those who grew up in the States so it’s been fun getting people out of their comfort zones.
One food item that we were expecting more pushback from but has become a cult favorite is our stir-fried duck tongue. Many who ordered took a while to pop one in their mouths but afterward loved the texture of the cartilage (which I learned is a very new texture for many people here). Many guests who’ve come in and tried it have been very excited about it and come back again and again for that specific dish.
Also, the nasi lemak has been a crowd favorite, which we’re thrilled about especially since it’s such a quintessential Malaysian dish!
Kyo: We believe in sharing what we think is good and what we enjoy back in Malaysia rather than thinking what fits the local taste.
In Malaysia, Singapore and many Asian cultures, we constantly ask if one has eaten as a form of courtesy. It seems as though our lives revolve around eating. Do you consider yourself food-obsessed, and what does food mean to you?
Moonlynn: Oh yes! I grew up eating everything and anything. My parents, also being restaurateurs, made sure that growing up my brother and I had an open mind and palette wherever we went.
Also, I love and am addicted to finding travel deals. My girlfriend and I travel with our stomachs leading us, no joke. We find places to travel and build our itinerary around the food there. Food is a very important part of my life and I truly believe that food brings us all together. I love discovering hole-in-the-walls and hanging out with chefs who showcase what is authentic and native to them.
I also do a lot of cooking at home and love hosting dinner parties and cooking for friends!
Kyo: Yes, I definitely think I’m obsessed with food and that’s why I ended up in the kitchen. When I was younger, my dad always told me that food is the key to bringing people together. Now I truly believe his words.
Recently, the literary scene has seen an influx of amazing Malaysian writers such as Tash Aw, Tan Twan Eng, Zen Cho and many more! Have you read any Malaysian Literature that really impacted you?
Moonlynn: When I was in Penang about 3 years ago, I read a compilation of short stories that were focused around food from Ipoh. Unfortunately, I left the book in Penang and don't remember what that book was called though I was so entranced by how creative the authors were in sharing their stories!
At the same time, I read The Gift of Rain by Tan Twan Eng. Being in Penang where the book is set made it so surreal. I loved how history was integrated into it and how it's a book about fate, destiny, doing what you think is right in a world where there really is no black and white, and accepting your choice and moving forward.
It’s difficult to find books by Malaysian authors here and so I started a 'library' of books at the shop dedicated to Malaysian writers that guests can browse and read while they’re enjoying their kopi or teh. We currently have books ranging from popular authors such as Tash Aw, Rani Manicka, Tan Twan Eng, YZ Chin, Selina Siak Chin Yoke.
I love foraging and we just catered for Long Litt Woon's US release of her book, The Way Through The Woods—that was the most recent book I read!
I read in a 2018 article that mentioned "Kopitiam is a New Cafe that feels like it has been there forever". It is incredible to be new enough to keep things fresh, yet familiar enough so people keep coming back for more. How do you maintain that balance?
Moonlynn: That article meant so much to us. It was important for us to bring the kopitiam culture to our space in the Lower East Side. This space is our home away from home so we wanted it to be casual, comfortable, and like the TV show Cheers—a place where everybody knows your name. We don’t offer wifi intentionally so that guest can bond over conversations, read from our book collection or the newspaper.
Doing the same thing on the day to day can get really stagnant and so it’s important in business to be able to give yourself space to 'play'.
For me, that means exploring. Not necessarily having to book a flight out anywhere. It can literally mean walking out of the door and taking a walk and getting inspired from everything and anything around me.
Also, as a startup it’s important to be able to play all roles but after a while you’ll hit that wall and when that happened for me I swiveled and started brainstorming ways to grow Kopitiam to more than just a cafe, but a lifestyle. It’s important for us to promote the Malaysian culture through the arts and I’ve been keeping myself on my toes spearheading a couple of fun side projects such as rebranding our packaging, collaborating with startups in the area and building the mini library.
Kyo: We wanted to create a place where people will feel like it is their second home. When I was in Malaysia, we would hang out at our favorite local kopitiam for ages and it would feel like we were related to the people that worked there. I think we would love to create that kind of atmosphere in NYC.
Do you have any aspirations for Kopitiam for the rest of 2019?
Moonlynn: We’re so fortunate to be able to do what we do and there’s so much we both want to do. 2019 has been such an amazing year with the feature in the NY Times, landing a James Beard nomination and being included in Bon Appetit's top 100 in NYC and we’re so lucky! Top of my list is to make sure the shop can run on it’s own two feet. Also, it’s such an honor to be able to be constantly introducing the deliciousness of Malaysian cuisine with America.
I’ve also been working with a Malaysian-Chinese designer on repackaging our condiments and that’s been stressful but at the same time very fun! Top on our list is for more community integration and givebacks, and of course more and more dishes for guest to try!