Kuching’s unique butter coffee pulls in the crowds

Tan pictured with a can of takeaway butter coffee.

KUCHING: Buttered coffee anyone? Well, if you like your caffeine fix with a fatty taste in it, then head down to Kai Joo Lane in the heart of the old section of the Sarawak capital.

There you will find the nondescript Hiap Yak Tea Shop, which serves this unique brew that has become popular with locals and tourists alike. It is enjoyed as well by the artists who set up their easels there to paint the quaint scenery.

The coffee is, of course, creamy, but it’s not too sweet. It costs RM2 for a small mug and RM3 for a larger one. If you’re hungry, you can enjoy it with buns or a bowl of the famous Sarawak Kolo Mee.

If you care to ask, the owner of the shop, who prefers to be known only as Madam Tan, will give you a little history of the street and the connection between her butter coffee and opium smokers.

A view of Kai Joo Lane.

According to Tan, the two rows of shops along the street were built by a Teochew businessman named Teo Kai Joo sometime in the 1920s.

The street was once known as Coffin Lane among locals because there used to be shops there selling traditional Chinese wooden coffins.

“I think it was around 30 years ago when they were asked to close down by the local authorities because people were too afraid to come here,” Tan told FMT. “The owners would display the wooden coffins outside their shops.”

She said her family had been running the coffee shop for more than 70 years.

The famous butter coffee served at Hiap Yak Tea Shop.

“I inherited this business from my father and I’m the second-generation owner,” she said. “My father came to Sarawak from China in 1927 at the age of 13 with other Chinese immigrants.”

The 68-year-old of Hainanese descent said her father used to sell drinks at a canteen near the Kuching Waterfront before he set up the coffee shop.

“He did a lot of things. He was a traditional Chinese physician and he even cooked for the white people back then. After he passed away in 1990, I took over the business and I’m running it with my mother.”

She recalled that decades ago there were a lot of opium dens along Kai Joo Lane.

In fact, the idea of butter coffee came from opium smokers who would consume pats of butter and thick coffee to soothe their dry throats, she said.

There’s not a single opium den left, of course, but the butter coffee has turned into a must-have beverage among many locals and tourists. Tan said they would drop by for a cup for breakfast or tea breaks.

“We receive a lot of visitors from the peninsula, Sabah, Singapore, Vietnam, China and European countries,” she said. “They enjoy our butter coffee. Some are artists, photographers or videographers and they would come here to paint or take photos and videos of our coffee shop.”

A view of Hiap Yak Tea Shop.

The shop operates from 7am to 4pm from Monday to Saturday and 7am to 2pm on Sundays.

“Breakfast time is the busiest time of the day,” Tan said.

If you have no time to sit and drink, the shop offers a takeaway in a unique fashion. The hot beverage is sold in washed milk cans because Tan has her customers’ health in mind. She believes it’s not a good idea to pack hot drinks in plastic or polystyrene cups.

“I don’t think there are other coffee shop owners who serve their customers butter coffee in a can,” she said with a smile.