Old flavours at Kuchabe – an organic, vegetarian 'kopitiam' in Taman Desa

Kenny Mah
Kuchabe in Taman Desa offers organic and vegetarian 'kopitiam' fare – Pictures by Kenny Mah and Anthony Bong

KUALA LUMPUR, June 21 – There’s a tendency to think non-meat cuisine as something fringe: How Grandma used to make the entire family dine on mock goose (deep-fried, greasy and full of MSG) every first and fifteenth of the Chinese lunar month or the latest vegan trend.

The latter might encompass anything from the raw food movement to Impossible Burgers gaining traction in fast food chains, garnering an increasingly mainstream veneer.

If the lesson here is to eat your vegetables, surely they don’t have to be in such a processed form, be it old school wheat gluten or designer faux meat. Plant-based substitutes for meat products? Why not just eat plants as they are?

Salads. Vegetable stir-fries. The always dependable pasar malam corn on the cob. (Though depending on whether the stall owner uses margarine or real butter, that amazing maize might not be so vegan after all.)

What if there is something more palatable, closer to home and healthier to boot? Such is the premise of Kuchabe, a kopitiam with a difference in Taman Desa: the menu is entirely vegetarian (i.e. no meat or fish, but eggs and milk do make a welcome appearance).

In Hokkien, “Ku Cha Be” translates roughly as “ancient flavour” hence the kopitiam’s homage to the tastes of the good old days, albeit with ingredients that are non-GMO to ensure fewer pesticides and no preservatives. You won’t find any MSG-laden mock meats here.

The homey, air-conditioned interior of a modern 'kopitiam', with social distancing in place

And just like any other kopitiam nowadays, there are the requisite social distancing measures, not least all those masking tape crosses on selected tables and chairs. The shop had continued operating during the Movement Control Order (MCO) period, albeit only for self pick-up service.

Kopi (left) and Kuchabe’s instantly iconic tiffin carrier logo (right)

But there’s nothing like sitting down to a local breakfast of a kopi panas (labelled here as kopi Malaya for that requisite nostalgic nod), roti bakar, half-boiled eggs. The reopening of businesses is a sigh of relief for food operators and customers alike.

Half-boiled eggs and 'roti bakar'

I’m a curious customer. Closer inspection reveals that my Nyonya curry noodles has done away with any shrimp or fish cake; instead eggplant and a medley of nuts – almonds, walnuts, cashew nuts and pine nuts – add much appreciated notes of umami.

Author Michael Pollan famously summarised everything he’s learned about food and health in seven words: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”

Which is not to say one ought to only eat plants. In fact, meat can be indispensable to a well-balanced diet unless one is happy to go the supplement route.

For example, meat is an important source of vitamin B12 as it is not found in plant-based foods. Furthermore, not all protein is made equal: protein from meat sources have a High Biological Value (HBV), which means it is more easily digested and absorbed by our body.

The problem is, in a modern society, we are far likelier to eat meat than plants. I doubt we are in danger of eating too little meat; rather, we eat too much at the expense of eating our grains and greens.

Brown rice 'nasi lemak' (left) and Nyonya curry noodles (right)

If not for health, consider this: plants, when prepared well, taste fantastic. Kuchabe offers other plant-based Malaysian delights such as nasi lemak with coconut milk-infused brown rice and tempeh as well as lontong with organic millet and cashew nut sauce.

The Hakka lei cha – possessing a near endless ingredient list including brown rice, homemade bean curd, long beans, carrot, cabbage, black and white sesame seeds and ginger – proves non-meat, plant-forward cuisine isn’t a fad but something our forefathers have been eating for generations, especially when meat was scarcer or a luxury.

Mung bean and barley soup (left) and snow fungus, sago and fairy grass 'tong sui' (right)

As we sip on our tong sui – a warm bowl of mung bean and barley soup; a chilled glass of snow fungus, sago and fairy grass perfumed by lemon and pandan – I realise that many of our favourite dishes from childhood are vegetarian by default anyhow.

Still, some hard boiled quail’s eggs would be divine with the snow fungus tong sui.

In his book The Kitchen Diaries III: A Year of Good Eating, Nigel Slater cautioned against guilt-based eating: “We risk having the life sucked out of our eating by allowing ourselves to be shamed over our food choices. [ ] My rule of thumb – just don’t eat too much of any one thing.”

There’s a time and place for bacon and steak. When we need a break from our carnivore diet, we can have our kopitiam fare and eat vegetarian too.

Of course, the reverse is true too: After a couple of vegetarian meals, I rediscover the joy of a medium rare cheeseburger. Meat tastes even better when you’ve spent some time apart. (Oh, Nigel Slater, bless his tender omnivorous heart.)

Kuchabe

7-0-4 Jalan 3/109F, Danau Business Centre, Taman Desa, Kuala Lumpur

Open daily 9:30am–9:30pm

Tel: 03-7971 3193