coffee in KL

Me time at Hétam

Iced chocolate at Hetam. The chocolate is sourced from Indonesia. At the time of visiting, drinks were only available in take-away cups, hopefully this will change as the cafe becomes more established and the pandemic restrictions that were in place at the time of visiting are eased.

In 2021, a new cafe opened up in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Called Hetam, it is a cafe almost designed for the post-pandemic, Instagram age that we find ourselves living in. At the time of visiting, there was no ‘inside’ to this cafe, everything was outdoors: customer seating was outdoors, even the ordering and the counter were outdoors. Umbrellas provided some protection from the downpours as well as the hot sun that you can get in Kuala Lumpur. You order at a counter which is on the right of what looks like it used to be an ordinary house on the service road parallel to Jalan Maarof (between Lorong Maarof 5 and 6). The house is now the headquarters for the online section of Hetam and is where they package up their online sales. There are a small selection of edibles to the right of the cash till but the main focus is on the coffee, tea and chocolate. The coffee is roasted by Hetam. At the time of visiting, the coffee was a choice of either an Indonesian natural or a Brazilian washed coffee and available as any of the usual espresso based drinks. I found that the Indonesian worked better in the espresso but that when brewing with an Aeropress at home, the Brazilian came out on top. Various Japanese Genmaicha and Hojicha teas were available but each time, I focussed on the coffee. The chocolate also is sourced by Hetam mostly from Indonesia and is well worth trying.

The staff at Hetam were very friendly and knowledgable. When we first arrived, they talked us through checking-in using the MySejahtera (Covid-19) app when we didn’t have data on our phones (as of 1 May 2022, hopefully MySejahtera will be something you don’t need to use any more). This led to a conversation on the origins of Hetam and their hopes for the cafe for the future. We ordered a hot long black and an iced chocolate and took a seat in the side/back garden of the house. The space seems almost made for Instagram. Infact, perhaps it was. Carefully arranged bamboo adorns the sides of the garden. White pebbles form the floor while strategically placed bits of tree are scattered throughout the space leading to a certain, specific aesthetic. The first time that we enjoyed a coffee at Hetam, another couple were already there. As we sipped our coffee, the couple split into model and photographer and, with what appeared to be a well practised routine of recognisable Instagram poses, set about photographing each other against different backdrops. In subsequent visits, we enjoyed the place to ourselves.

The counter at Hetam is helpfully under a shelter, the other seats are mostly under umbrellas. You get a glimpse here of the ‘insta-ability’ of the cafe. Random dead logs form a counterpoint feature to the white pebbles of the seating area.

The name “Instagram” is apparently a derivation of a combination of “instant camera” and “telegram”. The idea being that a message is sent through an image acquired by an instant camera. The word camera is in turn derived (from both Latin and Greek) from the word for a chamber or a vault. Presumably this was a suitable name for the camera because early photographs were taken through a pin hole into a vaulted dark chamber. Which brings us into the realm of physics as the photograph is literally that which is written by light. Film cameras and even the old Polaroid instant cameras, could still, legitimately be said to take photographs. The light would fall onto a chemically active film and change it based on the exposure levels so that the image was written directly by the light. When it was developed, the negative would be the reverse of the places on the film ‘written’ by the photons of the light (for a description of the process and a recipe for developing film with coffee click here, opens as pdf). This is not true of the sort of “instant cameras” most would now use to upload an Instagram post. In the case of digital cameras, the photons of the light still activate a light sensitive electronic chip behind the camera lens, but much of the interpretation of the image is done using computer software. For example, many of the light sensitive cells in the camera are not colour sensitive, they are only sensitive to the number of photons that fall on them (the intensity of the light). Colour images are formed by considering neighbouring cells which each have a different coloured filter covering them. The relative intensity of the electronic response within each group of cells is then interpreted by the software as a different colour. At this point can it be said that the image is written by the light? The final image is a mixture of the light falling on the photoactive cells and the interpretation of that electrical data by the software in the phone or digital camera. The light directs the electrons within the device but does it write the image?

Table, pebbles and bamboo in the seating area of Hetam, KL.

There’s also the issue of what it means to have the image and to share it. The picture on the phone, the image shared through the screens, is a collection of data points that no one can hold. A photograph printed from film or even the negative is, in that sense, more tangible. In the case of the negative, what you hold is what was written by the photons, by the light, at the point at which the subject was seen. In either case though what does it mean to have, or even to share, that image? Erich Fromm in his book “To have or to be” contrasts a poem of Tennyson with a haiku of Basho*. In the former, Tennyson ‘plucks’ a flower out of a wall in order to study it. Basho in contrast looks “carefully” at the flower; paying attention to it but not possessing it. Fromm questions our mode of being, suggesting that Tennyson could be compared “to the Western scientist who seeks the truth by means of dismembering life.” Is this fair? Does our desire to possess an image, pluck a flower or to ‘capture’ a moment and thereby ‘keep’ it necessarily imply that we would seek truth by means of dismembering life?

Which may take us to a consideration of those dead tree branches on the gleaming stones. They appear like petrified wood, wood that has been preserved for years through a process of fossilisation. We cannot own such objects, they outlast us. If we photograph it we cannot keep that moment, what does it mean to us if we don’t look carefully at the instant but rather try to pluck it for posterity?

So finally back to Hetam. While it may be ideal for Instagram, and while it will definitely be worth a few good photo ‘captures’, the space is also ideal for contemplation. For sitting with a coffee, enjoying the moment, appreciating the surroundings, both aesthetic and people, and for being rather than having. A friendly, outdoor and relaxed cafe, what more could you want?

Hetam is on Jalaan Maarof just next to the Petronas petrol station on the service road to Jalan Maarof.

*”To have or to be” by Erich Fromm, Jonathan Cape publishers, 1976 (1978)

In their Elements at Bean Reserve, Bangsar, KL

coffee in Bangsar at Bean Reserve

Bean Reserve, Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. Note the logo on the window.

The first thing that struck me as I entered Bean Reserve in KL was the geometry. Somewhat hidden along a street behind Jalan Maarof, Bean Reserve offers a quiet space amidst the bustle of Bangsar. The 2D representation of a 3D object that is Bean Reserve’s logo is somehow mirrored in the choice of the tables and chairs that are contained in the cuboid space of this café. Triangular tables are arranged to form larger, quadrilateral tables. Circular stools nestle underneath square tables. Light streams into the café from a large window on one side of the room. The other side features a sliding door that was occasionally opened, revealing the desks of The Co, a co-working space that shares the building of Bean Reserve.

Although we only tried the drinks (an exceptionally fruity long black and a very cocoa-y iced chocolate), there looked to be an interesting selection of edibles on offer, with a bottle of chilli sauce stored behind the counter. Soy milk was available if you prefer non-dairy lattes and there were a good range of drinks on offer from nitro-cold brew to iced chocolate, just what can be needed in the heat of KL! Coffee is roasted by Bean Reserve themselves (who are both a café and a roastery), thereby providing the residents of (and visitors to) Bangsar with a seasonally varying range of great, freshly roasted coffee.

geometry at Bean Reserve

Triangular tables and circular stools.

The different geometrical features in the café immediately suggested Euclid to my thoughts. Written over 2300 years ago, Euclid’s The Elements was, for many years, the text book on geometry and mathematics. It is said that Abraham Lincoln taught himself the first 6 books of The Elements (there are 13 in total) at the age of 40 as training for his mind¹. Working from 5 postulates and a further 5 common notions, Euclid describes a series of elegant mathematical proofs, such as his proof of the Pythagoras theorem. And so, it may be appropriate that there is one more geometrical connection between the ancient Greeks and Bean Reserve: That sliding door that connects the café to the working space of The Co.

The space, occupied by The Co, behind the sliding door seems to be much larger than the café. But how much larger is it? Double the length? Double the volume? This is similar to the problem that perplexed the Delians. The idea is simple: Find the length of the side of a cube that has a volume exactly double that of a given cube. It is thought that the problem may have been formulated by the Pythagoreans, who, having succeeded in finding a method of doubling the square (see schematic), extended that idea to 3D. Could a simple geometrical method be used to double the cube? (There is of course the alternative legend about the problem having been given to the Delians by the Oracle)

A geometrical method for finding the length of a square with twice the area of a given square… now for 3D

It turns out that this is a tough problem, but one that may again have relevance for our world today. While researching this café-physics review, I came across a book by TL Heath² that had been published in 1921. In his introduction he wrote:

The work was begun in 1913, but the bulk of it was written, as a distraction, during the first three years of the war, the hideous course of which seemed day by day to enforce the profound truth conveyed in the answer of Plato to the Delians. When they consulted him on the problem set them by the Oracle, namely that of duplicating the cube, he replied, ‘It must be supposed, not that the god specially wished this problem solved, but that he would have the Greeks desist from war and wickedness and cultivate the Muses, so that, their passions being assuaged by philosophy and mathematics, they might live in innocent and mutually helpful intercourse with one another’.



Bean Reserve can be found at 8 Lengkok Abdullah, Bangsar, 59000 Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

¹History of Mathematics, An Introduction, 3rd Ed. DM Burton, McGraw-Hill, 1997

²A History of Greek Mathematics, Thomas Heath, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1921


Pulp fiction in KL?

Freshly roasted coffee, Pulp, Papa Palheta, KL

Coffee on the cutting machine at Pulp

There have been a few great cafés opening up recently in Kuala Lumpur, including Pulp by Papa Palheta in Lucky Gardens. However the space that Pulp occupies is unrivalled: The old cutting room of the Art Printing Works. It really is geek meets hipster in this café, with old electric fittings and the original paper cutting machine housed alongside a fantastic range of freshly roasted coffee.

There is a great range of coffee on offer too. From pour-overs to espresso based drinks and cold brew, Pulp is a great place to discover a wide range of coffees. I had a pour over Ethiopian (Suke Quto) that was beautifully presented with tasting notes ready for me to enjoy. A nice touch was that the cup had been pre-warmed so I got no condensation around the rim of the mug when I filled the cup with coffee. The coffee itself was very fruity, presumably very lightly roasted in order to retain the fruity notes of the beans. (On a second visit I enjoyed a long black which was also very fruity though less so than the pour-over).

pourover at Pulp, Papa Palheta, KL

Taking time with a beautifully presented pour-over

Although there are plenty of seats in this café, on both occasions we visited it was crowded and hard to find a seat. It seems that this is a very popular spot for good coffee in KL, so do be prepared to share a table! Indeed, one of these ‘tables’ is formed from the old cutting machine itself, the machine that used to prepare the paper used for newspapers and books. Sipping coffee here, in a place steeped in the history of printing, it seemed only natural to consider the role in our current society of fake news and whether there is anything that we can do about it.

The issue of fake news or of exaggerated or incomplete news stories is not just limited to issues surrounding the recent US election. Reporting our experimental results honestly and our theories thoroughly underpins all scientific research. However, as funding decisions and employment prospects increasingly depend on publications in prestigious journals, question marks can start to hover over each scientist’s paper (the “publish or perish” problem). Does reporting a result honestly include waiting for that last result (that could contradict or delay the ‘story’ thereby making publication in “high impact” journals such as Nature less probable)? Do we read the papers of others thinking that they have reported everything as truthfully and fully as possible or do we shrug as their next paper (in a lower impact journal) reveals the ‘caveats’ on their previous work? The chemist and scientific philosopher, Michael Polanyi wrote in 1946:

… Suppose scientists were in the habit of regarding most of their fellows as cranks or charlatans. Fruitful discussion between them would become impossible…. The process of publication, of compiling text books, of teaching juniors, of making appointments and establishing new scientific institutions would henceforth depend on the mere chance of who happened to make the decision. It would then become impossible to recognise any statement as a scientific proposition or to describe anyone as a scientist. Science would become practically extinct.“∗

Pulp, Papa Palheta KL

Where else could you see all these old electrical boxes?

Although we are hopefully still very far from that scenario, it is fairly clear that similar levels of trust are required for our society to function well too. For our society to flourish, these same standards of integrity are required of our press (and indeed of ourselves if we publish – or share – articles online). The perception that our society is moving into an era where fake news is as valid as proper investigative journalism has led to some calling ours a “post-truth” era. However, as Emmi Itäranta has argued, we should endeavour to avoid calling our times “post-truth”, in part because the term itself is not neutral. Our words and language matter and when we use the term we contribute to the idea that truth is no longer meaningful.

Such thoughts remind us of our own responsibility and contributions to society. If we don’t want fake news to influence politics, we need to be careful what we share or publish online. From our language to our values, we need to behave as if truth matters. And, to me at least, it seems that enjoying a coffee can help us with that. Stopping to appreciate the moment as we savour our well prepared coffee, we can step-back from the “retweet” or “share” button and think, is this evidence based and true or else, what is it that I gain by sharing this?

It strikes me that cafés such as Pulp, with their mix of great coffee and interesting surroundings are perfect spaces in which to slow down and think rather than react and retweet. Perhaps that is what we need for 2017, more time contemplating in cafés, less time on social media. Let’s hope for some quiet time ahead.

Pulp by Papa Palheta is at 29-01 Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia,

∗Michael Polanyi “Science, Faith and Society”, Oxford University Press, 1946


Something in the air at Mace by Coffee Chemistry Signature, KL

3D hot chocolate art on an iced chocolate, Mace, Mace KL, dogs in a chocolate

Drinking an iced chocolate with friends.

Perhaps Mace by Coffee Chemistry Signature in Kuala Lumpur should really have a “cafe-art” review rather than a “cafe-physics” review. Indeed, it was because of its latte art that Mace, which operates from a light and airy building in Damansara Uptown, Kuala Lumpur, had been recommended to me. With a comfortable interior and friendly staff, Mace is an interesting place in which to spend some time. But it is certainly the artistic endeavours that are the striking thing about Mace. Nor is it just ‘latte art’. The cakes at Mace arrive at the table decorated into an artwork. It is interesting that every visit to Mace will provide a different creation to enjoy, providing a place that you could return to again and again.

Nonetheless, this is a cafe-physics review website and there is also plenty of science to be found in latte art. For example, one of our drinks arrived with a 3D latte art sculpture floating on its surface. This piece requires manipulation of the rigidity of the milk foam, a topic that has been covered previously on the Daily Grind. However this time, it may be worth looking a little deeper into our frothy coffee: What makes a bubble?

The answer may seem obvious, inside the bubble is “air” with the bubble surfaces being formed from the water and proteins in the milk∗. But it is the question of what air is, and the implications of that, that is today’s Daily Grind.

Tweetie pie with a cake at Mace, KL

Cakes can be shared with cartoon characters at Mace

It appears that it was Empedocles (492 – 432 BC) who first recognised that air was a substance†. A thing that existed all around us. But it took until the seventeenth century and the invention of the air pump by Otto von Guericke (1602 – 1686) before people recognised that air was heavy. Guericke was responsible for the spheres of Magdeburg demonstration about the strength of a vacuum. He had fashioned two hemispheres of copper. Each hemisphere fitted very closely to the other. He then used his air pump to pump the air out of the spheres (ie. make a vacuum) and tried to pull the two hemispheres apart. Accounts vary but it is said that teams of 8-15 horses tethered to each hemisphere were unable to pull the spheres apart because of the vacuum created within the spheres†.

It was von Guericke’s air pump, together with the work of Boyle on gases and Torricelli’s invention of the barometer that prompted Francesco Lana-Terzi, SJ (1631-1687) to design an ‘air ship’. The idea was simple: If air had a weight and it is possible to make something lighter than air (by making a space inside a copper sphere a vacuum), then it should be possible to make something lighter than air such that it would float, just as objects that are less dense than water float. What differentiates Lana-Terzi’s design from previous fantasies about flight (such as Daedalus and Icarus) was that Lana-Terzi based his ideas on solid principles of mathematics and physics. He calculated how heavy the air was and balanced that with the amount of air that he would have to pump out of four hollow spheres of copper in order that they could lift a gondola full of people.

latte art by Mace, Eiffel Tower and hot air balloon

Art on a cafe latte at Mace

Although there were practical problems with Lana-Terzi’s idea of an air-ship based on four hollow copper spheres, his ideas were correct and eventually led to the development of the hot air balloon. And it is with the hot air balloon that we return to coffee, to Mace and find a connection with a London cafe. The artwork on my cafe latte was not, ‘latte art’ in the sense to which we have recently become accustomed. It was however very much art on a latte, with a scene featuring the Eiffel Tower depicted in chocolate. Just to the right of the Eiffel Tower and suspended in the milky sky was a hot air balloon, floating away exactly as Lana-Terzi had envisaged. Back in 1783, on the corner of Euston Road with Tottenham Court Road, there used to be a pub/coffee house called the Adam and Eve. It was renowned for its cakes and cream and its large tea garden. As far as I can work out, the tea gardens extended to around what is now Brock St and the site of a Beany Green. It was here, in 1783 that the balloonist Vincenzo Lunardi (1759-1806) “fell with his burst balloon, and was but slightly injured”‡. Fortunately for Lunardi, and for ballooning in general, it was only a slight setback. Lunardi went on to make a number of balloon flights, including the UK’s first successful hot air balloon flight.

So next time you are in Kuala Lumpur, why not spend a while at Mace imagining floating in on Lana-Terzi’s air ship gondola while you enjoy a gorgeously frothy iced chocolate. Who knows, one day Lana-Terzi’s air ship gondola may even feature on their latte art, I’d love to see that picture!

Mace by Coffee Chemistry Signature is at Damansara Uptown, Kuala Lumpur.

∗ On Food and Cooking, The science and lore of the kitchen, H. McGee, Unwin paperbacks, 1984

† History and philosophy of science, LWH Hull, Longmans, Green and Co, 1959

‡ Quote from London Coffee Houses, Bryant Lillywhite, 1963


Can you see me? At 123 Gasing, KL

Coffee at 123 Gasing

Latte, Long black and chocolate muffin at 123 Gasing, PJ, KL

There are times when you can sit and observe things for quite a while before noticing the physics that becomes a cafe-physics review. There are other occasions when the subject of the review is staring you in the face indeed, it is practically there written for you, on a noticeboard in black and white. Such was the case at 123 Gasing, a cosy and quirkily decorated cafe located, strangely enough at 123 Jalan Gasing (ie. Gasing Road), in PJ, Kuala Lumpur. We enjoyed a lovely breakfast of scrambled egg, long black and a latte (along with a very rich chocolate muffin). The coffee is from Degayo (according to Malaysian Flavours) which means that it is practically a local food product (originating as it does from neighbouring Indonesia). Coffee with minimal ‘food miles’. The only point of regret about our time at 123 Gasing was that we didn’t manage to spend longer there.

decoration at 123 Gasing

Birds on the wall at 123 Gasing.

It is the decoration that strikes you as you look around this cafe. A couple of painted birds sit on top of an electrical wire, prompting the question “why do birds not get electrocuted when they sit on a wire?”. Another question painted to a notice board on the wall asks “what is it that we need that we cannot see or feel?” (answer at the end of this post). Yet it was another thought on another noticeboard that prompted this cafe physics review. That thought suggested invisibility (see picture below).

The idea of invisibility has fascinated story tellers and philosophers for millennia. Trying to render objects invisible is, understandably, very desirable for the military and the defence industry. Although we have always had access to camouflage and deception, it is only relatively recently that it has become feasible to talk about invisibility cloaks as a real possibility.

A sign at 123 Gasing

Am I invisible?

What has moved “invisibility cloaks” into the realm of reality has been the advent of a field called “metamaterials”. As the name suggests, metamaterials are not materials that occur naturally but materials that we manufacture. Combinations of different materials or repeating patterns of a specific material that interact with light in a way that the material itself would not do. The classic example is a so-called split-ring resonator (SRR). These are rings (that were first made with copper) which have a slice cut out of them. Many such rings are arranged in a repeating, lattice pattern. Due to the engineered pattern of the copper, these lattices interact with light in a way that ordinary copper does not (for details click here). Specifically metamaterials can be engineered to bend light around objects so that it appears that the object is not there.

In order to work, the artificial structures (e.g. the copper rings) must be smaller than the wavelength of light that is to be ‘bent’. This means that microwaves (which have a wavelength ranging from a few cm to a few m) can be manipulated far more easily than visible light (with a maximum wavelength of 700 nm, or about 1/100th of the size of a grain of espresso grind). At first sight this may seem disappointing until we remember that even devices that only work with microwaves would have a clear application for the defence industry (radar).

already disturbed

Hopefully not a comment on current scientific funding

There are many ethical and philosophical questions that follow from the fact that it is now within our reach to render some objects invisible. It is not a scientific question as to whether we should do it, the scientific question is whether we can. Where science and ethics collide though is in the funding issue. A subject such as this with obvious applications receives far more funding than fields that advance our understanding but do not enhance our weaponry. Indeed, one of the researchers involved in this field describes how he was “offered large sums of money (almost on the spot)” when he spoke of the potentials of the “Harry Potter project”¹. Something that is alien to those of us who work in less fashionable subject areas where funding is a constant struggle. Government funded science quickly becomes dominated by a quest for application and technology. In effect we bypass the ethical questions of whether we should do this because it is this that will get funded. Science that is not driven by obvious applications will not get funded.

Is this what we want? Should the humanities and philosophy play a role in helping to determine what research is beneficial for society and so which research receives funding? Should ethical considerations play a part in funding considerations, or should scientific research all be about the devices that we can use? It is certainly something to ponder while sipping on our long blacks.

Answer to the question “what is it that we need that we cannot see or feel? Answer in 1990 – Air, answer in 2000 – Wi-fi (though personally I think maybe this should be the answer in 2015, the given answer of “2000” was still a bit early for widespread wifi).

Further reading and [1]: “The Physics of Invisibility” Martin Beech, New York, Springer, 2012