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Kopitiam – A Singapore Restaurant in Lafayette, CA May 18, 2009

Posted by hslu in Food, Restaurants.
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Kopitiam – A Singapore Restaurant in Lafayette, CA

It was quite a coincidence that we met Denica’s mother and her brother right in front of Kevin’s apartment when we visited him the second time after his knee surgery. We were about to go out to dinner about 7 in the evening on April 6th. The sun was still out and the weather was quite nice and comfortable. I had just pulled up my rental car in front of his apartment and was waiting for them to come out. When they finally showed up, Denica’s mother was happened to be there waiting for his son to get off from a class. She spotted Kevin first and called on him to say hello. She asked Kevin about his surgery and showed sincere concern about the progress of his recovery. She more than once praised Kevin for his good nature and personality and asked him if he had talked to Denica recently. She said that Denica was coming home that weekend for the annual Chinese Wushu competition at Berkeley and wanted to invite us for a dinner. I told her that we were only here until Wednesday and said that she really didn’t have to do that. Maria instead jumped in and said that we should be free Tuesday night and said that she wanted to thank Denica’s mother because she had taken care of Kevin when we were not in Berkeley. Well, Denica’s mother said that she’d come over tomorrow night and take us to dinner. Well, that’s how my first encounter with Singapore cuisine came about.

Kopitiam is located in Lafayette, California about 15 miles east of Berkeley. Denica’s parents and her brother came over Tuesday evening and her mother rode in our car and took us to Kopitiam after a 20 minute drive. Kopitiam stands for a traditional breakfast and coffee (Kopi) shop (Tiam店 or shop) found in Singapore and South East Asia. The restaurant is located in a strip mall of about 20 stores. The outside of the restaurant was It is quite small with about 30 seats. There are a few displays on the wall and in the window showing awards won by the chef, Mr. Thian Boon Leong. Apparently Chef Thian had been in culinary business for 28 years and opened Kopitiam in Lafayette about 2 years ago. The restaurant looked very new to me, clean and with little decoration. A dark-colored wooden counter in the back of the restaurant separated the dinning area with the waiter station which was also used to prepare some of the dishes. The layout of the dinning room was a bit unusual because the seating arrangement and a waist high counter near the front door were such that it was kind of inconvenient for customers to get in and out of the restaurant.

When we first entered the restaurant, Denica’s parents were warmly greeted by the lone waitress and a few other people behind the counter. It appeared that they were regulars at this restaurant. We were seated near the entrance and Denica’s parents patiently explained some dishes to us and compared them to what they had in Singapore. Our waitress was very nice, offered timely suggestions to Denica’s parents and answered a few of my questions.

I ordered Roti Prata ($4.75) which I thought was similar to our 蔥油餅 and a couple of Otah ($1 each) which was fresh fish paste wrapped in banana leaf. They ordered Kopitiam Organic Chicken Rice ($8.95.) the most famous Kopitiam dish. It was prepared with de-boned organic chicken, steamed and cooked with chicken favored Jasmine rice. Soy sauce and minced ginger were served with this dish. Other dishes included Sambal Eggplant (Grilled eggplant in Sambal sauce at $5.95) and curry fish.

The Roti Prata turned out to be more like Indian’s Naan than Chinese’s 蔥油餅. It was thin and cooked in a pan using vegetable oil. I was disappointed at Otah because it wasn’t properly seasoned and lack of banana leaf flavor. I couldn’t make out what the Sambal sauce was like because I was totally unfamiliar with its taste. The Organic Chicken wasn’t my favor because I didn’t like chucks of chicken breast meat but the rice was fluffy, soft and full of flavor. Curry fish was heavy in curry taste but there were other spices I couldn’t identify. The fish was slightly over cooked too. Since this was the first time I had Singapore cuisine, I was interested in the way it was cooked and how it tasted in my mouth. I found that I didn’t like their food that much probably because I was unfamiliar with their cooking technique and wasn’t that crazy about curry or coconut milk in many of their dishes.

I also spent some time talked to Denica’s dad about Singapore: the island itself, the country, its relationship with its neighbors especially Malaysia, and its politics using the only name I knew about Singapore from my college days in Taiwan, Premier Lee Kuan Yew. The island is very small: about 3 times the size of Washington DC but has grown bigger slowly by creating new land from filling the seabed with dirt from the hills in the country. However, it has run out of space to the north and had to expand to the South which is more costly. I found out that, like us in Taiwan, all male in Singapore have to serve in the Army for 2 to 3 years before college because Malaysia, being a pre-dominant Muslin country, had wanted to take over the small island country to the South when it became an independent country in the middle of 1960’s. The fact that Singapore has been under the control of Chinese and the living standard of Singapore is way higher than its neighbor didn’t help the situation either. As far as Premier Lee, Denica’s dad told me that he ran the country with a heavy hand and it would be unthinkable to be his enemy when he was in power. Although he has stepped down from the Premier position, his son is currently in power.

We finished our dinner around 8:30 PM and said good-bye to each other at the parking lot. I am sure that some day I’ll have another chance to try Singapore cuisine, most likely in Singapore. By then, my experience at Kopitiam will be a good reference point to build upon. At least I’ll know more about Singapore food than before I ate at Kopitiam.

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