In Penang, Malaysia, toast with butter and sugar.
David Robert Hagerman for The Wall Street Journal

It’s late in the afternoon and I’m in need of sustenance. So I walk to my favorite cafe, grab a stool and place an order. The establishment’s owner saws slabs from a white-bread loaf and hands them to his assistant, who suspends them using tongs over burning coals. When it’s turned golden, the bread is handed back to the owner, who spreads it with butter and jam and slices it lengthwise into four three-bite planks. I eat my toast from a pink melamine plate, washing down every other bite with inky coffee.

I might just have described a snack had in San Francisco, where last year a cafe in an outer neighborhood birthed an American food craze: artisan toast. But, no, I’m in George Town, Penang. And although my favorite afternoon treat fits the artisan toast definition—bread cooked to order, buttered and smeared with house-made jam, jelly or other spread—it’s no fad. Colonization and migration made toast with kaya (coconut milk, eggs and sugar cooked and stirred into a paste that is sometimes flavored with pandan leaf) a stalwart of the Malaysian—and Singaporean, for the two countries were once one British territory—culinary repertoire a hundred or so years ago. Even today kaya tost, as the combination of bread and spread is called, is a beloved breakfast (often eaten with a runny soft-boiled egg), dessert, and anytime-of-the-day nosh.

If credit for the invention of artisan toast is to be placed anywhere it should be at the feet of Hainanese Chinese. Arriving in British Malaya beginning in the late 1800s, after waves of earlier migrants from mostly southeast China, they found that jobs in tin mines, on rubber plantations and on farms were few and far between. Many ended up in the kitchens of British colonialists and Chinese towkay, or wealthy merchants and clan heads, and in British army mess halls, where they mastered Western dishes like chicken pot pie, lamb and pork chops, and mushroom soup. Soon, Hainanese men had earned a reputation as skilled chefs and some went out on their own, opening kopitiam, or coffee shops, serving Chinese and Western dishes.

Grilled toast with kaya and butter.
David Robert Hagerman for The Wall Street Journal

Today, Hainanese kopitiam, some of which are run by second- and third-generation descendants of their original owners, live on in Malaysia and Singapore, dishing up what has come to be regarded as comfort food: chicken chops, a partially deboned chicken leg and thigh battered, fried and served in Worcestershire sauce-based gravy with vegetables; roti babi, deep-fried bread stuffed with shredded pork and other ingredients; thick coffee made from butter (or margarine) and sugar-roasted beans, sweetened with condensed milk. And kaya tost.

The best kaya tost boasts charcoal-burnished bread cut neither too thick nor too thin, and kaya made in batches small enough to ensure adequate attention—and stirring—during a cooking process that can last up to 20 hours and, if done right, yields a milk coffee-hued spread that tastes a lot like caramel. My favorite kaya tost purveyor in George Town is Toh Soon Cafe, which, consisting of a covered work space and folding tables and chairs sprawled over half the length of an alley, hardly qualifies as a kopitiam. Its second-generation Hainanese owner,

Y.S. Ooi,

gets extra points for using thick-crusted, fluffy crumbed roti Bengal: rectangular loaves named for their alleged place of origin that are made in the same bakery that introduced the bread to Penang in 1928.

Kaya tost is delicious and, priced at almost a quarter of what a slice of artisan toast costs in the U.S., a bargain. But kaya tost’s most noteworthy quality is its staying power in the face of a decade-long onslaught of imported, sweet breakfast-y alternatives like muffins, cupcakes, donuts and cronuts. If history is anything to go by, it’s safe to predict that Malaysians and Singaporeans will be relishing the original artisan toast long after its American cousin has been eclipsed by the Next Big Thing.