IPOH, Dec 6 — When is a kopitiam not a merely kopitiam?
At Lim Ko Pi in Old Town Ipoh, delicious local favourites such as asam laksa and nasi lemak are served up in a decidedly fresh setting. Forget about drab buildings in various shades of grey: this coffee house announces its presence with a bright fire-engine red.
Make no mistake, Lim Ko Pi is more than about simply serving old-fashioned comfort food. Owner Lim Chai Hock (originally from Kedah), his Ipoh-born wife Lee Yoke Chee and their three daughters are big on heritage conservation and this is their way of preserving Ipoh’s past.
One of the Lim girls, Peggy Lim, who is also the events and marketing manager, explains that Lim Ko Pi is the family’s first restoration project. Their family had purchased the units at 10‑16 Hugh Low Street (Jalan Sultan Iskandar), including the Oversea Building (formerly the OCBC bank), to ensure these heritage landmarks do not get demolished and transformed into modern structures.
Lim shares, “We wanted our project to have maximum impact on the community. We thought the best answer to this was to run an F&B outlet that can target all ages. It was (and still is) important to us that families are comfortable coming to our place because this will expose their children to the relevance of old buildings in today’s context.”
There’s certainly more to Lim Ko Pi than their Nanyang-style coffee (trivia: “Lim Ko Pi” means “drink coffee” in Hokkien, and the name was suggested by a family friend on Facebook). Apparently their top selling dishes are their curry noodles and Hokkien prawn mee.
The former has generous toppings of siew yoke (roasted pork belly) that remain crispy even after dunking in the thick and spicy curry broth. For the latter, the Lims insist on using only fresh, good quality prawns, which gives the soup a nice kick of umami.
Lim says, “The food we serve is based on the principle of serving honest food with traditional Malaysian flavours. What we mean by ‘honest’ food is food prepared with no artificial flavouring.”
On a hot afternoon, certainly nothing is better than a bowl of their special ice kacang, resplendent in its rainbow hues and soothing blend of flavours and textures. Colour is definitely one way the Lims lift up the spirits of their patrons, who also enjoy the “garden patios” (small enclaves with a skylight and plenty of potted plants) and the hand-painted tiles that line the wall of the shop.
Lim says, “This style of tiles is no longer manufactured locally. My sister Betty had wanted to use the original ceramic tiles with motifs previously only made in Japan and India. However we could not find them in such quantities to fill up the wall.”
In the end, the Lims made it a family project by painting the desired motifs on plain 6x6 inch tiles by hand. The three sisters and their mother contributed to this family-bonding project.
“In the end, we painted around 300 tiles. We certainly had a lot of fun in the process and we are all very proud that we left a part of our handiwork in the shop.”
The family’s close bond comes from the sisters growing up in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, where their father was based at one point for his mining business.
Lim recalls, “Growing up in Indonesia exposed us to many things, one of which is the pride that the Indonesians take in their craftsmanship. The younger generation is unafraid of delving into the traditional arts. Their elders are generally very supportive of the idea of the youth and foreigners learning their skills.”
She also discovered a lot about the numerous tribes in Indonesia and their great variety of food and cultural activities. “We learned tolerance and acceptance at a very young age because of this exposure.”
After pursuing her Bachelor's degree in chemical engineering at Curtin University, Perth, and Master’s degree in commerce at the University of Western Australia, Lim returned to Ipoh with the rest of her family.
“Ipoh is very different from the other cities that I have lived in. The life circumstances in my family moulded me and my sisters to adapt as quickly as possible in any environment. One of the things that I love about ‘new’ places is to discover its nooks and crannies. I am still discovering new places now!”
Lim’s years abroad have helped her with their family’s maiden venture into the F&B industry. She says, “I generally like to ask people how are they doing, even if I am not familiar with them or if it is their first visit to Lim Ko Pi. This still surprises people! It’s a habit I picked up during my time in Australia. It disarms people and breaks the ice.”
So the next time you find yourself in Old Town Ipoh, why not drop by this family-run kopitiam for a friendly smile and to “lim kopi”?
Lim Ko Pi
10 Jalan Sultan Iskandar, 30000 Ipoh, Perak
Open Tue-Sun 7am-5pm; closed Mondays
This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on December 5, 2013.