The standout dish at Malaysian restaurant Kopitiam is one that’s been in process for a very long time. Chef Kyo Pang, Eater NY’s 2018 Chef of the Year, started making hand-torn noodles back when she was 8-years-old — working with dough after her sick and grumpy grandmother enticed her to try it as a replacement for Play-Doh.
Now, years later, the same techniques she used then come into play with the pan mee, a soup with those noodles that’s become a must-order of the Lower East Side reboot. Crispy fried anchovies sit on top of a stew of wood ear mushroom, minced pork, and spinach, mixed in with signature flat flour noodles in an anchovy broth. It’s salty, warming, and texturally diverse, and it’s a strong representation of the type of homestyle comfort food with a rich cultural history that Kopitiam specializes in.
Pang grew up eating pan mee at home, made by her grandmother, she says. It was a recipe created by Pang’s great grandmother, who passed it to her grandmother and then to her parents, who have a restaurant in Penang where the chef grew up. In that way, pan mee is very much indicative of the rest of the menu. Many of the recipes at Kopitiam come from three generations and are influenced by Baba Nyonya, which describes the descendants of the first Chinese to settle in Malaysia between the 15th and 17th centuries as well as their culture and cuisine. The Baba Nyonya approach to cooking refers to more than just flavor, encompassing philosophy about ingredients, Pang explains.
“We believe in understanding the natural characteristics of every ingredient that we use,” she says.
The pan mee is also an example of how Pang has been able to grow beyond Kopitiam’s modest beginnings. She opened the original iteration in 2015 in a space about a fourth of the size of the new digs. There, it was just her and one helper in the kitchen, churning out a small menu of Malaysian snacks and desserts. She tried doing the pan mee for about two weeks, but it just wasn’t quite possible yet with those limitations.
In the bigger space and with a bigger kitchen staff, she’s finally able to share the soup that she says she associates with growing up in Penang. Here’s how Pang makes the pan mee, a flagship of the restaurant.
The real labor comes into play with the dough. Here, Pang still adheres to the oldest technique. It’s influenced by Hakka cuisine, a style of Chinese cooking that can be found in Malaysia. She works wheat flour, eggs, water, and oil with her hands. Machines can’t really achieve the attention to detail and texture required, she says. “Your hands tell you how it feels,” she explains.
The noodles get handmade every day at Kopitiam, and the dough has to sit in the fridge for about two hours until they achieve a texture Pang describes as “bouncy.” She boils a pot of water for the noodles, and in another pot, she has the broth, made from anchovies and mushroom stems. The anchovies bring plenty of salinity to the broth, and the mushroom stems impart some sweetness.
She then pulls the dough into rough, imperfect pieces and drops them in the boiling water. Once they float to the top, she transfers them to the broth, where they cook for a little longer, usually until they get a slightly chewy al dente texture.
The texture of the noodles can change due to all sorts of variables, including the weather and the temperature of the room. She acts as the consistency monitor, checking the noodles for their texture before they’re added to the broth. “A lot of it is about feeling,” she says. That connection to the food is something she says she learned from her grandmother. “You connect yourself with your ingredients. You have to feel it with your hands; you have to understand with your heart; you have to see it; you have to look at it,” she says.
Finally, she drops a handful of spinach into the soup, stirs, and then transfers it to a bowl, where it’s then topped with ground pork, wood ear mushrooms, crispy fried anchovies, and shallots. Rock sugar is added to the meat to bring out some of the flavors.
It’s time-consuming to make, she says. The menu even notes to allow 20 to 25 minutes when ordering the pan mee, which comes served in a wide, white bowl. At $12, it’s on the higher end of the menu prices.
But the the dish stands on its own as a meal, or better yet, accompanied with a lighter snack and one of the restaurant’s sweet, frothy white coffees.