MALACCA, Jan 24 – Jonker Walk is the undisputed capital of the tourist magnet that is old Malacca town. (Very few people notice the one-way street has been renamed Jalan Hang Jebat; true names are lasting no matter the number of changes.)
Antiques, chicken rice balls and backpackers abound. The crowds, especially on weekends, are daunting. I’m a true-blue Malaccan yet I rarely brave the onslaught.
A more serene alternative is literally a street away. Jalan Tokong (Malay for “Temple Street”) has long been a symbol of multi-racial, multi-faith harmony; here, even the casual traveller would be amazed by the presence of the Kampung Kling Mosque, Cheng Hoon Teng Hokkien Temple and Sri Poyyatha Vinayagar Moorthi Hindu Temple, all in a row. Further down the street are old Chinese shophouses supplying afterlife necessities such as incense, hell bank notes, and even paper versions of iPads and BMWs.
All but one shop.
Instead of red lanterns and joss sticks in orange plastic wrapping, there is a red Vespa parked outside and a mandarin-coloured Volkswagen Classic Bus inside. That’s right: a flower-powered VW van, with fully functional tyres, all four of them. Instead of the stench of grease and oiled sprockets though; this mobile “workshop” has the aroma of freshly-ground beans wafting from within.
Coffee. Good coffee by the smell of it.
Within minutes, I’m seated at a small table waiting for my first cup. The pony-tailed owner-barista who goes by the memorable moniker of A-bert Khow (yes, that’s a hyphen, and not a missing L) is brewing an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe for me.
His café has the equally memorable moniker of Mods Café, and an appropriate one at that, judging by the vinyl records on one wall and the Beatlesesque drumset next to the coffee roaster. Even the café logo makes use of the Royal Air Force roundel, a classic mod symbol.
While slowly pouring a stream of hot water into the dripper, he tells me my Yirgacheffe isn’t really at its peak: “You should have tried it a few days ago, when it was at its prime, with fully developed flavours. But that’s how beans are, you see, they are constantly “breathing” and changing. That’s the fun part and the challenge – capturing them at their best.”
I take a sip of my Yirgacheffe once he’s done and tell him it’s okay. A-bert seems unconvinced.
“You might like the Ethiopian Limu I’m roasting tonight better. It has a fuller body than the Yirgacheffe and a more complex flavour. Of course, it’s only going to be the decent after a few days – you are just passing by, are you?”
I inform A-bert that I am a local but based in KL, so yes, I am just passing by, after a fashion. He nods, as though filled with sympathy for me; I’ll be missing out, certainly. More customers flow in so my fellow Malaccan excuses himself to go make more coffee.
Amongst the new arrivals is a young Caucasian woman who asks A-bert politely if she could take a picture of him brewing coffee with her iPhone. He nods again (reserving most of his breath for coffee-centric chatter) and she beams.
Every shop in the Jonker area is constantly inflicted with flashes of “pass-by” tourist photography so I’m sure A-bert appreciates the polite request even if he doesn’t say so.
Soon, her cappuccino’s ready and she takes a tentative sip, then another, before announcing, “This is really good coffee.”
I nod. We smile at each other across our tables, a moment of simple, shared pleasure.
“Lovely, isn’t it?” I say, “and not just the coffee. This place is …”
“… amazing. I know. It’s really beautiful. I’m so glad I found this café. I’m from Sydney and this is as good as the stuff back home.”
We begin to chat over our cups of coffee, and when we have finished with those, we order some more. I discover she is an art therapist and of her desire to work with women support groups in Cambodia.
We discuss Machu Picchu and the warmth of South Americans. She mentions she had not had the best food in KL so I offer a few decent recommendations.
An hour later and it’s closing time. I promise to connect the Australian with a social entrepreneur who might just be able to help her and wish her better luck dining in our capital city. I thank the mod barista for his coffee and promise to return for the Ethiopian Limu if I can.
I walk out into Temple Street and it’s raining after weeks of unbearable hot weather. Finally a miracle. Not unlike meeting complete strangers and listening as they share their stories. Miracles don’t happen every day, but I find a good cup of coffee helps, don’t you?
* Kenny wonders if there are more hidden coffee havens in his hometown. More café stories here.