What Makes Singapore's Coffee Culture So Unique?

Kopitiam in Singapore
Kopitiam in Singapore | © L. Allen Brewer / Flickr

In Singapore’s fast-paced life, one thing brings back all Singaporeans to their roots and that is the age-old tradition of Kopitiam (coffee shop) culture. The art of ordering kopi (coffee) in Singapore dates back centuries, and the thriving scene today serves as a reminder of what makes Singapore’s history so rich and diverse.

The history of Kopi

Singapore is often seen as the perfect blend between the east and the west and Singapore’s Kopitiam culture is the most apt example of this. Kopi means coffee in Malay, and tiam means shop in Hokkien and Fujianese. Even the word kopitiam itself demonstrates the cultural amalgamation Singapore has witnessed over the years.

Around the 19th century, Singapore opened its doors to immigrants who would develop Singapore into a fast-growing modern nation. The Chinese cooks began opening up kopitiams to serve the European working population. Word has it that Europe’s penchant for coffee combined with the local flavors led to the introduction of kopi. However, the locals could not afford the high quality Arabica beans that the western world fancied for a premium brew.

Instead, they invented a new way to use the lower quality Robusta beans, which were brought in from Indonesia via Arab traders and developed an equally delicious brew.

What makes Singapore’s Kopi unique?

Unlike most western brews, kopi is made from Robusta beans, which contain a high dosage of caffeine. To enhance its flavours, the beans are roasted in the wok with butter or lard and sugar. This caramelizes the beans and provides it a unique aroma. Then, it is strained through a sock (a small cloth that acts as an infuser) and mixed with condensed milk.

The perfect Singaporean breakfast

The result is a unique creamy and highly caffeinated form of coffee that costs only about S$1- S$1.50 in most hawker centres (local food courts) or coffee shops. Pair this with a kaya toast (kaya is a traditional jam made from coconut and eggs) and a half boiled egg and you’ll have the perfect Singapore breakfast.

Where to find the best kopi

A typical hawker center

Kopi is widely available in any of the thousands of hawker centers (food courts) that spans the city. In fact, in the old areas of Singapore (like Geylang), you can still find people coming together to grab a cup of kopi or beer, hang around, perhaps play ‘Mahjong’ and have a good time.

If you want to experience a cup of kopi the local way, you must visit one of the famous kopitiams where you can trace kopi right back to its roots. Ya Kun and Killiney both date back to the early 20th century and now have chains all across the country. Another noteworthy kopitiam is the Tong Ah Eating house at Keong Saik Road which has been run by 4 generations.

How to order a coffee in Singapore

Ordering the perfect cup of kopi suited to your custom needs is a complicated affair. To simplify it, you need to essentially think of 4 questions: hot or iced, how much milk and sugar, what kind of milk, thick or thin (strong or not).

If you’d like a coffee with condensed milk, you would ask for a kopi. Want it black, without milk? Make sure you ask for a kopi o, and request a kopi si for coffee with evaporated milk. For a cool refreshing hit, a kopi peng is a coffee with condensed milk and ice.

Need a caffeine boost to get you through the day? A kopi gao or even a kopi di lo will get you a strong or extra strong drink. Whereas if it’s later in the evening, a kopi po will ensure you get a weaker beverage.

If you have a sweet tooth, a kopi gar dai will get you a coffee with more sugar – a coffee with less sugar should be ordered as a kopi siew dai. Don’t want any sugar at all? A kopi kosong is the drink for you.

You should always order with your milk preference before anything else, so a black coffee with extra sugar would be a kopi o gar dai. And of course, make sure you get one for a friend as well – kopi sua will get you an extra order of 2 coffees.

Now you are ready to hit a kopitiam, order the perfect cup of kopi, and enjoy it the Singaporean way!

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