What Makes Singapore's Coffee Culture So Unique?

Kopitiam in Singapore
Kopitiam in Singapore | © L. Allen Brewer / Flickr
Photo of Madhurima Dutta
21 February 2018

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

The history of kopi

Singapore is often considered to be the perfect blend between the east and the west; Singapore’s kopitiam culture is the most accurate example of this. Even the word kopitiam itself demonstrates the cultural amalgamation Singapore has witnessed over the years: kopi means coffee in Malay, and tiam means shop in Hokkien and Fujianese.

Around the 19th century, Singapore opened its doors to immigrants who would develop Singapore into a fast-growing modern nation. Chinese cooks began opening up kopitiams to serve the European working population and word has it that Europe’s penchant for coffee combined with the local flavors led to the introduction of kopi. However, because the locals could not afford the high quality Arabica beans that the Western world fancied for a premium brew, they invented a new way to use their lower quality Robusta beans, which were brought in from Indonesia via Arab traders, and developed an equally delicious brew.

Kopi beans | © uroburos/Pixabay

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 their flavor, the beans are roasted in a wok with butter or lard and sugar. This caramelizes the beans and gives them a unique aroma. The beans are then strained through a sock (a small cloth that acts as an infuser) and mixed with condensed milk.

The perfect Singaporean breakfast | © Aapo Haapanen/Flickr

The result is a creamy and highly caffeinated form of coffee that costs only about $1-$1.50 SGD (approximately $1 USD) in most hawker centers (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

Kopi is widely available in any of the thousands of hawker centers throughout 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 four generations.

A typical hawker center | © Tiberiu Ana / Flickr

How to order kopi in Singapore

Ordering the perfect cup of kopi that will suit your palate is a complicated affair. To simplify it, you’ll need to answer the following questions: hot or iced?; how much milk and sugar?; what kind of milk?; thick or thin (strong or not)?

Kopitiam in Singapore | © L. Allen Brewer / Flickr

If you want a coffee with condensed milk, simply ask for a kopi. If you want it black (without milk), ask for a kopi o. Ordering a kopi si will get you a coffee with evaporated milk. For something cool and refreshing, ask for a kopi peng, or 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. 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 by specifying your milk preference before anything else. A black coffee with extra sugar is a kopi o gar dai. And of course, make sure you get one for a friend—kopi sua will get you an extra order of two coffees.

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

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