Ipoh Old Town’s White Coffee: What Is It and Why Is It “White”?

Not a fan of bitter, strong java? Then try Ipoh white coffee. Photo by Nathan Dumlao

Bustling cities, gorgeous beaches, lush rainforests and delicious food – when you hear “Malaysia”, these are probably the words that first come to mind. But did you know that the Southeast Asian country is also known for white coffee? This is not any ol’ flat white, though – we’re talking about a beverage that’s truly unique and originated in a city called Ipoh in the state of Perak.

 

So…what exactly is it?

The uninitiated could be forgiven for thinking that Ipoh white coffee refers to the colour of the beverage. It actually has very little to do with that. In this part of the world, the term “white coffee” comes from the literal translation of its Chinese name, which was used widely in the 19th century.

Many are also under the impression that there is some special “white coffee” bean that exists only in Malaysia – rest assured, there is really no such thing. Instead, white coffee is made from a range of regular beans we’ve all heard of, including Robusta and Arabica. The difference is that they are roasted to a lighter colour using either oil or margarine before being grounded, brewed, and served with sweetened condensed milk.

The beans used to create Ipoh white coffee are roasted with margarine or oil to create a drink that’s light in colour. Photo by Joshua Newton

This unusual preparation may come as a surprise to those accustomed to beans being roasted with butter and sugar. The effect is significant: butter and sugar give coffee its bittersweet taste, whereas with oil or margarine the end result is a brew that’s lighter in colour.

 

Who thought of such a thing?

There are several different versions of how the first Ipoh white coffee was created. However, most sources agree that the story begins in the 19th century in Ipoh’s Old Town area.

During this time, the British were in charge, and Perak was a flourishing tin-mining state. Since many foreign tin-mining corporations set up bases in Ipoh, their Western staff naturally brought with them their way of life. That included coffee, just how they liked it: bitter, punchy, and acidic. The locals (many Hainanese immigrants whose families and ancestors had sailed to Malaysia during the Qing dynasty) weren’t big on the Western-style coffee and decided to modify it to suit the palate of the Chinese population. And just like that, sweet, creamy and aromatic Ipoh white coffee was born.

 

Try it, in Ipoh and beyond

There’s no doubt that Ipoh is the best place to try the real white coffee. If you ever find yourself in the city in northwestern Malaysia, be sure to check out the legendary Sin Yoon Loong stall in Jalan Timah, which has been around since the 1930s. There is also Chang Jiang White Coffee in Jalan Windsor; they sell their signature coffee in two-in-one sachets so you can easily enjoy the taste of white coffee in the comfort of your own home.

Ipoh white coffee: found around the world. Photo by Annie Spratt

Ipoh white coffee isn’t just well-loved in Malaysia. In New York, it’s found a home in Kopitiam, a cafe on Canal Street. The Malaysian owners use olive oil instead of margarine to roast the coffee beans. It’s recommended that you opt for a side of kaya toast to go with your order of white coffee to complete the experience – wherever you are in the world!