Snapshots from Malaysia: Breakfast at Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang


[Photo: Carey Jones]

I don't think I'd ever gone to an eatery just to try its toast, but that's why locals and visitors crowd Toh Soon Cafe, a Chinese coffee shop (or kopitiam) occupying the better part of an alley off Campbell Street in the city of Georgetown.


It's a family operation of the simplest order: A jumble of plastic tables and stools under an awning face the "kitchen," an assembly counter where toast is buttered and coffee poured. There's no oven, or toaster, or broiler—the toasting action is brilliantly low-tech. In what looks to be a repurposed oil drum, a charcoal fire both heats water for hot drinks and toasts the bread below. A man hunches down with the toast grate, eyeballing each slice of bread and flipping just as it starts to turn golden.


Just toasted enough to melt the butter spread on, it's lightly crisp and a hint smoky, soft and delicate in the middle. Get it topped with salted butter or with butter and sugar, with a thin, salty peanut butter, or (my favorite) with kaya, a sweet, creamy coconut egg jam.

Also available are loosely poached eggs and small parcels of the ubiquitous nasi lemak (rice cooked in coconut milk with peanuts, spicy sambal, and deep-fried anchovies).


Coffee and tea (kopi and teh) are the logical accompaniment; whether hot or iced, they're served with a considerable pour of sweetened condensed milk unless requested otherwise.

Those predictable choices are complicated by what was, to me, an unlikely-sounding third: both. Kopi cham translates literally to "mixed coffee," the two stirred together in what looked to be equal proportion. The predictable taste of an English breakfast tea is bolstered by a bitter backbone of strong coffee, which itself has a thick, velvety texture; with a light hand on the milk, it's got the character of milky tea but impact of strong coffee.


It's just toast and coffee, yes; but how often is toast given this much attention?

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Snapshots from Malaysia: 10 Sweets To Know »
Breakfast at Toh Soon Cafe, Georgetown, Penang »
and more to come!

Editor's note: Carey's trip was arranged by Malaysia Kitchen for the World, an arm of MATRADE, the country's trade promotion agency.

Toh Soon Cafe

off Campbell Street, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia (map)