Chinatown's Kopitiam Has the Blue Malaysian Rice Ball You Never Knew You Needed


For proof that the American coffee shop tradition has lost a step, look no further than Kopitiam, a Malay-Chinese counter-service joint tucked away on Canal St in Manhattan. Kyo Pang is the queen of the kitchen here, but though her joint is technically a coffee shop (kopi is "coffee" in Malay and tiam is "shop" in Southern Chinese dialects), and the Malaysian pulled coffee is excellent, people don't come for the caffeine. They come for Pang's pulut inti.

Pulut inti is a traditional Malaysian dessert that sort of resembles a sweet coconut rice tamale. The bright-blue ball comes from the Strait of Malacca, where the Malay-Chinese Peranakan culture has thrived for centuries cooking up Baba-Nyonya cuisine. Pang is third-generation Peranakan, and with Kopitiam, she's made it her mission to preserve disappearing Baba-Nyonya dishes. Which brings us back to pulut inti.

The rice is blue thanks to an overnight soak with morning glories that Pang's mother grows and ships from Malaysia. After steaming the rice with coconut milk, she forms it into fist-size balls, topping each with a sweet mixture of grated coconut and palm sugar. Then, the whole thing gets wrapped up in a banana leaf.

We dispatched Lawrence Weibman, aka @nycfoodguy, to Kopitiam to unwrap one of his own. Watch this week’s episode of The Explorers to see how it all went.

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