If you’re familiar with the hybrid Malay/Hokkien expression ‘kopitiam’, you’ll have certain expectations about this Canberra restaurant. Named after the ubiquitous coffee shops in Malaysia and Singapore that serve traditional and affordable home-style meals, this eatery, in the Australian capital’s fashionable suburb of Manuka, delivers its promise of authentic South-East Asian flavours, but with plenty of intriguing culinary experimentation on the side.
Open since 1998, Abell’s Kopi Tiam is the brainchild of husband and wife, Abell Ong and Lorna Sim, both originally from Kuching, Sarawak, one of the Malaysian states on the island of Borneo. Abell, who mans the stoves with Thai chef Jaroen Muekhunthod, immigrated to Australia in 1978 to study in Canberra. He joined his sister Judy and her husband Kwan who at the time were running the now-closed Mandarin Restaurant in Phillip.
“I ended up working there casually for about seven years as a waiter and kitchen-hand,” says Abell. “I learned a lot from their Taiwanese cook, who emphasised the importance of using good-quality produce. He was very secretive about his recipes and would just tell me to ‘look and learn’ whenever I asked him questions.”
Looking and learning was how Abell gained his culinary skills, with his cookery education first starting in his mother’s kitchen as a young boy. “In a Peranakan household, the kitchen is always the heart of the home,” remarks Abell of his Chinese-Malay heritage. “The first thing I learned to cook was rice on an old Peranakan charcoal stove.”
It was before the time of celebrity chefs and cult food programs, so cookbooks were also Abell’s source of knowledge and he would pore over them to learn new cuisines and techniques. After his stint at the Mandarin, he continued to work casually at various restaurants and also took up a catering position at Parliament House, eventually choosing a full-time career in hospitality. While running a takeaway business, an opportunity to lease the former Ali Baba restaurant location in Manuka arose, and Abell and Lorna finally realised their dream of owning a traditional Malaysian restaurant in Canberra.
“Lorna and I had always found it very difficult to find authentic Malaysian food in Canberra,” Abell says. “When we decided to open Kopi Tiam, we aimed from the start to serve what we ourselves loved to eat, but we wanted to serve Malaysian food that was healthier, with less oil and salt and no added MSG, while using as much quality regional produce as possible.”
Judging from the enthusiasm in the bright yellow and orange dining room bustling with diners huddled over steaming stir-fries, creamy curries and glistening noodles, it is clear the formula is working. The setting and menu may be far more contemporary than its open-air-plastic-chair Asian counterparts, but Canberrans are loving Abell’s kopitiam classics such as nasi goreng and char kway teow, as well as the smorgasbord of other Malay, Chinese, Nyonya (Chinese-Malay), Indonesian and Thai dishes that are on offer. The wide selection ensures everyone is happy and the staff, led by Abell’s eldest son Alistair, helpfully steer you towards making a harmonious selection to share.
Starters include crowd-pleasers such as roast duck rice paper rolls filled generously with shredded meat, crisp bean sprouts and coriander, and served with a thick chilli and hoisin sauce. It’s an interesting blend of Chinese duck pancakes and Malaysian popiah (fresh spring rolls) with a Vietnamese twist. Signature dishes feature some of Abell’s childhood favourites – a dark, earthy beef rendang and Teochew pork braised in kecap manis (Indonesian sweet soy), served with fried tofu and lily buds. Another highlight is Bali chicken, a creamy tamarind curry with eggplant and green beans. “These dishes have all sold well over the years,” says Abell. “Having a good butcher makes it easier. You go a long way if you have good produce,” he adds, echoing his Taiwanese mentor from his early days at the Mandarin.
There is also a specials board with modern fusion creations such as zucchini flowers stuffed with prawn and crab meat, and egg noodles with Australian king prawns, bacon, sundried tomato and basil. “Having lived in Australia for more than 30 years, I’m very lucky to have tried so many different cuisines,” explains Abell. “I also talk to our greengrocer and butcher for inspiration. I see what’s available and try new things. The specials board is a great way for me to experiment with new ideas and also cater for our regulars who seek something new apart from our usual menu.”
Vegetarians are equally catered for with plenty of leafy stir-fries and coconut curries, and a vegan mee goreng (fried Hokkien noodles) with nori for added depth of flavour. Abell tried introducing fermented tofu to the menu, lending another Chinese classic to his repertoire, but its distinctive pungency wasn’t well received. “Sometimes traditional dishes fail because there’s a taste that needs to be acquired from a young age – like Vegemite!”
Abell’s 92-year-old mother, who also lives in Canberra, is acknowledged for her contribution to her son’s culinary prowess with the dish succinctly called ‘my mum’s laksa’, of course tweaked gently to Abell’s tastes. “I use a vegetarian stock instead of chicken because I think it’s lighter,” he reveals. “I still discuss and argue about recipes with her, but I know my customers best!”
Politicians, journalists, families and retirees are all fans of this relaxed ‘coffee shop’ and their loyalty has stood the test of time. “Some of our regulars have been coming with their parents since we opened, and now they bring their partners and babies!”
It’s this willingness to adapt South-East Asian dishes to suit Australian palates that has made Abell’s such a success story and differentiates it from other equivalents nearby. “I just cook what I like to eat,” says Abell simply. “After all these years, I’m still passionate about cooking and tasting good food.”
Photography by Tom Donald.
As seen in Feast magazine, June 2014, Issue 32. For more recipes and articles, pick up a copy of this month's Feast magazine or check out our great subscriptions offers here.