Kopitiam classics reinvented: How a 'family' in PJ puts their own passionate spin on nostalgia

The founders of LI Damansara Jaya (left to right): Lim Yee Rui, Lim Heng Kit and Lee Ziyan. — Pictures courtesy of LI Damansara Jaya
The founders of LI Damansara Jaya (left to right): Lim Yee Rui, Lim Heng Kit and Lee Ziyan. — Pictures courtesy of LI Damansara Jaya

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PETALING JAYA, Aug 31 — Smoked mackerel kerabu paired with avocado. Soy chicken glazed with gula Melaka. A greasy and so sedap homage to the ultimate Malaysian street food: the inimitable Burger Special.

These are household favourites and kopitiam classics reinvented by LI Damansara Jaya, with a passionate, contemporary spin on shared, communal nostalgia.

LI Damansara Jaya is founded by three friends — head chef Lim Heng Kit, head barista and finance person Lim Yee Rui, and manager Lee Ziyan. The trio all graduated from the William Angliss Institute (Melbourne) in 2014 and wanted to bring back a slice of what they had learned and experienced.

Lee recalls, “We felt like we had something to say in the local food and beverage (F&B) industry — a voice that encompassed the type of food put on the table as well as the style of hospitality. Thus, LI was born.”

Over the years, LI has grown organically in their neighbourhood by highlighting local food and ingredients. Lee says, “We take inspiration from whatever is in the market daily. We also use local produce such as rice from Langit Collective and soy sauce from Mu Artisan Soy Sauce.”

LI Damansara Jaya reinvents 'kopitiam' classics for prosperity.
LI Damansara Jaya reinvents 'kopitiam' classics for prosperity.

Beyond a locavore bent to their sourcing of ingredients, LI is also heavily influenced culturally by childhood favourites. Lee explains, “We are inspired by what we grew up with — a lot of our dishes are inspired by kopitiams such as Yut Kee — so we enjoy taking classics and updating to make them our own. We revamp in a way we think is still delicious without disrespecting the past.”

This energy of revitalising our shared heritage is evident in their house specialties as well as festive packages.

Their Merdeka Fami-LI Meal is representative of the latter — a celebration that includes slow cooked pork shoulder marinated in peanut chilli sauce for 24 hours and cooked sous vide for another eight hours; cucumber pineapple saladredolent of selom leaves, fish sauce and gula Melaka; charred Langit nasi impit and soy marinated boiled eggs.

The Merdeka Fami-LI Meal includes slow cooked pork shoulder, charred Langit 'nasi impit' and soy marinated boiled eggs.
The Merdeka Fami-LI Meal includes slow cooked pork shoulder, charred Langit 'nasi impit' and soy marinated boiled eggs.

Intentionally or inadvertently, LI Damansara Jaya has positioned itself as a more experimental and artisanal take on the traditional kopitiam, differentiating themselves from other contemporary takes by going beyond a mere surface update. It’s also about showcasing the founders’ personalities.

“Coming from the behind the scenes of the F&B industry, we wanted a place to express ourselves,” Lee explains. “We like to associate the way we run our business with the sport spirit mentality of ‘teamwork makes the dream work.’ A marathon is the way we practise the business.”

A marathon with many hurdles but also many milestones. The team at LI has since expanded their business to opening a bakery next door. Called Provisions, the new spot is inspired by cool Californian bakeries and chill Melburnian cafés.

Homage to Malaysian street food: LI Damansara Jaya’s Burger Special.
Homage to Malaysian street food: LI Damansara Jaya’s Burger Special.

The challenges of running two different food concepts has only sharpened their resolve. Lee notes, “The food business is fast-moving and it is important to be open to changes. We make mistakes but we work well as a team.”

With the pandemic and ensuing lockdown, they had to think swiftly on their feet — from learning to better utilise their delivery system to learning how to bring their much vaunted hospitality to their customers’ doorsteps.

“We have adapted to the situation. For example, getting on board a couple of delivery platforms and trying to analyse what are the needs and wants from our patrons. Aside from that, we have strong support from the community as well as our regulars.”

Terrific teamwork: The passionate front of house and kitchen crew.
Terrific teamwork: The passionate front of house and kitchen crew.

With the present circumstances accounted for, as best as they can manage, what is next for LI Damansara Jaya? Lee is excited about looking to further the idea of locality and sustainability on top of their usual pursuit of delectable flavours.

She shares, “We plan to bring our food and hospitality forward in a contemporary manner. With this basic philosophy, we feel we can be adaptable, be it our Fami-LI meals for deliveries to hopefully bring our LI-neage tasting menu back when we are able to dine in.”

Certainly regulars have been availing themselves of popular LI dishes such as their Pan Seared Tandoori Eggplant, tenderly smoked and mellowed out with cool yoghurt, pickled shallots and the unexpected addition of bunga kantan (torch ginger flower).

Pan Seared Tandoori Eggplant (left); Dragon Fruit and Passion Fruit Enzymes (right).
Pan Seared Tandoori Eggplant (left); Dragon Fruit and Passion Fruit Enzymes (right).
Silky and spicy, the luxurious 'mapo tofu chawanmushi.'
Silky and spicy, the luxurious 'mapo tofu chawanmushi.'

Thick slabs of decadent spam atop a bed of umami-packed seaweed butter rice. Silky and spicy, the luxurious mapo tofu chawanmushi. Is it any wonder their customers return for more, even without the luxury of dining in?

Some products aren’t as affected by the switch to takeaway and delivery: a bottle of Dragon Fruit and Passion Fruit Enzymes remains a rejuvenating beverage, a sort of thirst quenching and nourishing reward after a long week of work.

The positive feedback despite the trying times is heartening, Lee observes, as this justifies what they have been hoping to achieve: “As long as at the end of the day our restaurant is able to support and grow our community, our guests, our suppliers and our team.”

From dine in to takeaway/delivery, LI Damansara Jaya has adapted according to the times.
From dine in to takeaway/delivery, LI Damansara Jaya has adapted according to the times.

If there is a lesson the good folks at LI Damansara Jaya has learned (and perhaps taught us), it’s that we make our own families. The trio that started the business and their team have built a “family” dedicated to revisiting kopitiam classics and their shared nostalgia.

This is a nostalgia we understand. These are the flavours of our childhood, sure, but LI’s menu goes beyond reinventions; these may become classics in their own time and the flavours of our many prosperous years to come.

LI Damansara Jaya

Web: lidamansarajaya.com

FB: facebook.com/lidamansarajaya

IG: instagram.com/lidamansarajaya

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