The Definitive Guide to Ordering Drinks in Penang (and Malaysia)

There is not much to do: Penang (and Malaysia) have their own way to order drinks. And it's best you get acquainted to it fast, if you want to enjoy a cuppa during your visit.

So many drinks: how to recognize them, and order them? (picture credit: Marco Ferrarese)

Let’s face it: with all the different variants on offer, it’s not easy for newbies to ordering drinks in Penang. Some people even consider ordering Malaysian drinks a ‘science’ in itself. I know it well, coming from Italy, a country whose coffee culture is so unique and hard to get to grasp with.
Problem is, there is too much on offer: coffee with milk, black coffee, condensed milk, with no sugar, with more sugar… not counting several different ways to say what you want.
Truth be told, it took me a while to master the art of ordering my drinks, and I thought that others could benefit from a quick, hands-on guide to order the drinks they really want while in Penang.

The following can be applied mostly to coffee and tea, but since they refer to the quantity of sugar and the temperature of your drink, they also work for the majority of other soft drinks such as chocolate-based Milo, lime juice, and even a simple glass of water.

Bring me an ‘O’, please

‘O’ like in kopi ‘O’ stands for kosong, that’s Malay language for ‘zero’, and it is used to indicate black coffee or anything without the most popular Malaysian sweetener – condensed milk. You must say ‘kopi O’ when you want a long black coffee, international style. But remember that even if the coffee is black, it does come with sugar – in copious amounts – and you will have to specify how sweet you want it. Not saying anything to the waiter will result in receiving a drink with a dose of sugar that’s considered normal in Malaysia, but that can be very much for most foreigners.

So, is this ‘O’, panas, or ais? (picture credit: Marco Ferrarese)

Remember: Normal Kopi and Tea are Sweet as Hell

Knowing what ‘O’ means is paramount to understanding that in Malaysia, coffee and tea are normally prepared with a copious amount of condensed milk poured directly from the can. This style is considered ‘biasa’, normal, and as such, if you simply order a ‘coffee’, it will come like this. Don’t be surprised, then, if your coffee becomes the color of brown cappuccino when you mix it, for there’s a thick layer of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup. This makes Penang – and Malaysia’s – coffee pretty good if you have a sweet tooth, but of course, undrinkable for those who should have learned to say ‘O’.
But if sweet hot coffee is what you want, learn to say ‘kopi biasa’ or ‘kopi panas’, which means hot, and that’s exactly what you’ll get.

Can I order my drinks cold?

Of course. In a tropical country that boils most of the year, there’s nothing more natural that having a cold drink, and this applies not only to juices and soft drinks, but to coffee and tea. Cold coffee in Malaysia is served by adding a profusion of ice cubes, and as such, it’s simply called ‘ais’, or ‘sejuk’, which means cold. Kopi ais, then, will be a cold coffee with condensend milk, while if you order kopi O ais, you will get a cold black coffee without condensed milk. Still, it will come with with sugar.

What if it’s too sweet?

As I mentioned above, a normal dose of sugar in Malaysia would make some foreigners very uncomfortable, for it’s way too much. And when you know it’s going to be too much, you should tell the waiter that you want ‘kurang manis’ – less sugar. This usually helps getting a moderately sweet drink that would go down well with most people. So, for example, you could order your kopi O ais kurang manis, and hope that the waiter will remember your preference 🙂 And if you really want no sugar, please say ‘tanpa gula’. Without any sugar. This usually makes the trick.

I’m sure that ordering drinks can be tough also for young locals, so keep on trying 🙂 (picture credit: Marco Ferrarese)

And what if I want to take my drink away?

No problem, as Malaysia is one of the few countries that really rules when it comes to packing drinks. They are masters in pouring your drink in plastic bags, with ice and straw included, that they tie to a handy wrist-string for your walking and drinking comfort. This option is called ‘bungkus’ (pronounced boon-koos) and it’s a real Malaysian experience you should try.
I think that the suggestions above are the real basics to make sure you get the drink you want, without any problems or confusing waiters. There are of course odd variables depending on particular drinks, but I think that part of the pleasure of drinking out in Malaysia is also to make some mistakes, and learn the hard way. By now, after reading this guide, you’ll be ready to experience by yourself, and have some fun by trying different combinations. Good luck! And leave any question in the comments, I’ll do my best to help/answer.


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