At last count, there were more than 100 stalls and restaurants in the country that are over 50 years old, with a handful over a hundred years old, and a dozen edging towards the century marker.
Most of them are trading the same food that they started the stall with, or are carrying on their forefathers’ trade. These dishes have withstood the test of time, and many of them have become famous for the excellent quality of their food.
They have become a part of Malaysia’s culinary heritage, gastronomic bastions proudly weathering the years and changing lifestyles.
Visit these old favourites not just for their culinary offerings, but also for the history that each serves up.
Kimberley Street char kway teow
One of Penang’s hottest woks, the secret to the longevity of this char kway teow stall lies in the seafood-infused oil that owner Lean Joo Suan uses to fry the flat rice noodles over a charcoal fire. He has been serving up the tasty noodles for the past 51 years.
Lebuh Carnarvon lorbak
Friendly owner Bor Choo Kooi is proud of the fact that he has been peddling his lorbak, wrapped in banana leaves for a better aroma, since pre-Merdeka days.
Ever since 1955, his now weathered pushcart has been parked outside the same coffee shop every day, come rain or shine, except during Chinese festival days. Today, business is as brisk as it has ever been.
Argyll Road roti canai
This tiny blue stall sits in the shade of a large pokok sena, and has been both a landmark and a favourite breakfast place for many Penangites since it opened on this road 51 years ago.
It has plenty of charm and a laid-back, somewhat rustic ambience to it, which draws an eclectic crowd of all races, ages and social backgrounds to enjoy a morning meal of fluffy roti canai (made with two eggs) and some spicy curry.
This 72-year-old restaurant is located in a pre-war shophouse with narrow, rickety stairs and creaky floorboards to complete the look.
The kitchen is equipped with traditional charcoal stoves, and spices and chillies are pounded in a stone mortar and pestle.
The restaurant was founded by Cheah It Ling’s father. Cheah and his siblings took over the restaurant a few years ago and have no plans to modernise the antique kitchen, insisting that food cooked with these traditional implements taste better. His many loyal regulars – who come here for the traditional kopitiam fare like chicken chop and asam fish – would doubtless agree.
This narrow, family-owned restaurant on Campbell Street is over a century old and one of the oldest coffee shops on the island. It wears its age well and has even installed air-conditioning for patrons who want to beat the heat. It is whispered to serve the best murtabak in the country, the meat nicely flavoured with spices and enveloped in a thin, crispy roti.
Bangkok Lane mee goreng
Even though this stall is on Jalan Burma, it is known as the “Bangkok Lane mee goreng” . . . because it faces that lane.
Is this the birthplace of mee goreng? We cannot say for sure but Penangites do not dispute the claim that the stall is the first on the island to sell the Mamak fried noodles, a petty trade which has been in Mahboob Zakaria’s family for 81 years, and started by his father.
The friendly man speaks Hokkien like a native and is quite the showman, swirling the wok furiously for the entertainment of patrons who line up for his tasty noodles.
Padang Brown popiah
The late K. Sulaiman set up this stall here 51 years ago. His simple popiah became so famous over time that he counted members of royalty and VIPs among his customers.
Originally from Tamil Nadu in southern India, Sulaiman was a dock worker before he ventured into the popiah business, spurred on by his own love for eating the fresh spring rolls!
He passed away in June 2006, and the stall is now run by his family.
This is Penang’s most famous fruit rojak stall. Before moving to this coffee shop, it operated outside the now-defunct Majestic theatre.
It was started over 65 years ago by Loh Moon Kan’s mother. Today, he helps his wife Helen Cheah at the stall. His mother’s original recipe for the thick, gooey sauce remains a closely-guarded secret.
Moh Teng Pheow Nonya kuih
In the kitchen of the kuih shop run by the Mook family, trays jostle for space with the steamers and huge woks used to cook the traditional cakes and filling for curry puffs.
The scene hasn’t changed for the past 60 years; these kuih are well-known, and sold all over the island.
Until 30 years ago, itinerant hawkers were plying the streets carrying the kuih in two trays balanced on opposite ends of a wooden pole (kandar).
FMS Bar & Restaurant
Many claim that this is the oldest bar operating in Malaysia, complete with an antique decor that has survived the ravages of time.
It is housed in a building built at the turn of the 20th century, and became a bar and restaurant in 1906.
FMS stands for “Federated Malay States”, a union of states under British administration, one of which was Perak. In its heyday, this colonial institution was frequented by planters and traders, and was a favourite after-match hangout for sportsmen. Today, it remains popular with townfolk.
Curry mee near the police station (ma ta lui kari meen)
This 60-year-old stall is always called the “curry mee near the police station”. It has moved from its original location, but the new place is just a few doors away, so the nickname still applies. Kok Tong Choon now runs the stall, after inheriting it from his mother. He uses her original recipe, admitting to have tweaked it slightly.
Yin Yau Kui Hakka Mee
In his Chinese village, Foo Yee Hing learned to prepare a dish of Hakka-noodles and meatballs. According to him, the dish was so widespread there that “everybody knew how to prepare it”. He started this stall 51 years ago after moving to Malaysia. This famous Ipoh Hakka mee stall is now run by his three grandsons.
Now 51 years old, this was the first nasi kandar business to open in town. It is currently run by the founder’s grandson Ahmad Haris; his grandfather originally peddled his rice and curries door to door.
The nasi kandar is affectionately referred to as “nasi ganja”, thanks to the very addictive sambal accompaniment and deep-fried ayam merah.
Ipoh white coffee
Ipoh’s famous white coffee kopitiam was opened in 1937. Sin Yoon Loong is located in a part of town known as “old town”, and is always busy. The white coffee is made from beans roasted with margarine but without sugar, giving it a lighter shade.
Sin Yoon Loong’s coffee is “pulled’’ teh tarik-style, which gives it a lovely, foamy head. Ipoh white coffee has become a much-franchised product around the country but nothing can replicate the experience of having a cup of coffee in this atmospheric kopitiam, permeating with the aroma of roasting coffee.
Heng Kee claypot chicken rice
The origins of the famous claypot chicken rice dish can be traced to this stall in a corner coffee shop, started by owner Lai Lie Kong’s father 51 years ago. As is tradition, the rice is cooked on a charcoal stove. Unlike other dark, soy sauce-doused versions, the fragrant, fluffy rice of the original is white.
Bismillah Eating Shop opened its doors in 1900, and is the oldest restaurant in Taiping and probably the country. It’s famous for its tender beef rendang and fluffy roti canai.
The pakcik who makes roti here still makes it on a marble table, a rare sight nowadays. The rendang is different from those found elsewhere, and is worth the journey from wherever you are. It must be the country’s best-kept secret.
Bak kut teh below the bridge
People either refer to this place as the “bak kut teh under the bridge” or “the bak kut teh next to the police station”.
It’s one of two outlets embroiled in the long drawn-out debate over who is the original inventor of the dish.
This outlet is 61 years old, and run by the third generation of the Lee family. The herbal soup here is thick, yet light on the palate, and well-infused with herbal flavours.
The original bak kut teh is always served in small, shallow bowls, not claypots, and with a choice of meats and innards only.
Yut Kee Restaurant
An old-fashioned Hainanese kopitiam, Yut Kee is affectionately viewed as an integral part of the capital’s history by its many regulars who come here to enjoy pork chops drenched in gravy and accompanied by roti babi.
It’s over 70 years old, and wonderfully atmospheric with its dark wooden chairs, marble-top tables and peeling paint.
Jack Lee owns and runs the shop with his family; he inherited it from his father, a Hainan immigrant who opened the shop in 1928. A framed portrait of the elder Lee takes pride of place on one of the walls.
Coliseum Cafe & Hotel
Step into the Coliseum and you are immediately transported to the colonial days. This Kuala Lumpur institution was opened in 1921 and remains a legend to this day.
It was once the haunt of the British and affluent locals who sipped gin and tonics in the planter’s bar on the ground floor or enjoyed sizzling steaks and chicken chops which the restaurant still serves to this day.
As the country headed towards independence, the upstairs rooms of the hotel were often occupied by prominent politicians such as the first Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman.
Looking more like an association house than a restaurant, Sek Yuen is 58 years old and was one of KL’s premier Chinese restaurants in its heyday, a favourite for wedding banquets in particular.
Should you venture into the kitchen, you’ll see lots of chopped wood stacked in a neat pile because the cooking is still done on wood stoves. There is no menu here but regulars know the good stuff by heart, such as the pipa duck and steamed chicken doused in soy sauce.
Petaling Street porridge
This stall operates out of a small alcove and has been dishing out bowls of steamy porridge for the past 60 years. It’s especially popular with traders in the area. The stall is run by Herbert Wong, a third generation trader.
Soong Kee Beef Noodles
Opened in 1945, Soong Kee is regarded as the beef ball noodle pioneer in Kuala Lumpur. This famous outlet, which occupies an old corner shop, draws a huge crowd daily. Once rather run-down, it was given a face-lift and air-conditioning recently.
Lien Bee Hokkien Mee
Located in a tiny alcove behind the coffee shop, this shop is run by the founder’s grandson, Kua Choon Chuan. His grandfather started the business in 1946 and he is continuing the tradition of frying the noodles over a charcoal fire. Diners enjoy their Hokkien mee in the lane next to the stall.
Seremban beef noodles
Even folks from KL think nothing of making the drive here to enjoy the beef noodles at the stall run by Goh Chuen Mei. It was started over 60 years ago by her father, Goh Hian Hai. The beef noodles are cooked according to her father’s recipe, brought over from his Hainanese village of Haikou when he immigrated here.
Capitol Satay Celup
Satay celup is a dish peculiar to Malacca, and is believed to have originated at the now-defunct Capitol theatre.
That was over 60 years ago. Today, it is owned and run by Low Yong Cheng, a third generation member of the family.
Satay celup’s popularity rests on the thick, spiced sauce which the meat is dipped into, a recipe handed down by Low’s grandfather.
Kedai Roti & Kek Hiap Joo
The scene has changed very little at this old-world bakery since it opened 90 years ago. A wood-fired oven is still used for baking, and regulars attuned to the baking schedule queue up outside for piping hot bread, coconut buns and banana cake. Latecomers have to return later, when the next batch is baked.
The pressure for this bakery to relocate is great as it is sitting on prime land. When that day comes, it will be a great loss to food lovers. The owners said the oven, made from red bricks, is special and can’t be replicated.
“The bakery cannot be relocated, it will end here if the shop is demolished,” said a family member who helps run the shop.
Kluang Train Station canteen
Opened in the 1940s, this is the most famous train station canteen in the country. Jack Lim is the third generation to take charge of this remarkable canteen, housed in a wooden building with wired windows and a whiteboard where Lim writes his quote of the day. The fare has always been the same: kopi and charcoal-toasted bread slathered with home-made kaya and butter, curry puffs and nasi lemak bungkus.
Tong Nam Bee
More than 50 years old, this Hainanese kopitiam has been a hub for local townfolk since it opened in the sleepy town. There’s a real old-world feel to it, furnished as it was with marble-topped kopitiam tables and dark wooden chairs and cabinets. Tong Nam Bee is located in a row of pre-war shophouses.
Kedai Kopi White House
The White House, facing the state mosque, is a Kelantanese landmark.
This Hainanese-run coffee shop predates the country’s independence. It’s a quaint shop seating only about 25 people, but is considered the place for coffee and toast in Kota Baru, and is a popular night-time hangout.
In addition to the regular kopitiam fare, they have East Coast specialties such as nasi tumpang, compressed rice with serunding, and either prawn sambal or masak lemak.
This coffee shop helped put Kemaman on the map, thanks to its brand of Hainanese coffee. Wong Sang Hai opened the kopitiam in 1935 when he first arrived here from Hainan. It is now managed by his daughter, Elaine Wong, who expanded the menu to offer Vietnamese coffee and ice-blended drinks. It remains a hub for locals and travellers to this day.
Mengatal curry and kaya puffs
The original shop, founded over 50 years ago, was located near the Menggatal bus station. The business relocated to this new spot nearby after the original burnt down. It’s owned by Hainanese Johnny Wong and his family, who jealously guard their recipes for the popular flaky curry and kaya puffs sold here.
Teochew temple yong tau foo and pork satay
This family-owned stall has been here for over 50 years and business continues to boom. Along with the rest of the stalls here, the pork satay and yong tau foo stall was once in the temple courtyard but were recently relocated just across the road.