Southeast Asia's Coffee Culture

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan


Earlier this year, I found myself standing before a coffee stand in Singapore, paralyzed with indecision. It wasn't that I didn't know what to order—I just wasn't sure how exactly to order it.

On the signboard before me were strings of words: Kopi O, Kopi C, Kopi Tarik, and more. The options were mind-boggling—and to think that I'd thought ordering coffee in America was confusing. A visit to any Singapore kopitiam—the Fukienese word for "coffee shop"—makes navigating the grande- and skinny-laden lingo of Starbucks seem like a breeze.

Today, even though Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outlets have
become ubiquitous, kopitiams remain hugely popular.

Ordering coffee or tea has always been a little complicated in Singapore—this is partly because this is a country that prides itself greatly in its coffee-shop culture. Kopitiams first sprouted in Singapore in the 1900s, set up by entrepreneurial immigrants from southern China who moved to the country seeking a better life and decided to tap into the British-inspired trend of coffee-drinking, says K.F. Seetoh, founder of Makansutra, a food guidebook that is a bit like Singapore's Zagat Guide. "Out of necessity, these became places to hang out," Seetoh says, noting that kopitiams quickly caught on because they usually offered ample seating and sold cheap dishes for lunch or breakfast in addition to coffee. A classic kopitiam breakfast, for example, costs just a few Singapore dollars (U.S. $1.00 being about Singapore $1.30 right now) and comprises coffee or tea, a runny soft-boiled egg with soy sauce, and "kaya toast," slices of white bread toasted and slathered with gobs of butter and house-made kaya, a sweet coconut jam.

Today, even though Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf outlets have become ubiquitous, kopitiams remain hugely popular—no neighborhood is complete without at least one. And their clientele runs the gamut from children and young professionals to retirees, who sometimes spend whole days sitting in kopitiams drinking coffee and, later in the day, beer.

There is a distinct taste to kopitiam coffee (or kopi, as it is called). For starters, the beans are dry fried in a wok with corn kernels and butter, Seetoh says. "This gives it a slightly sweet and savory taste," he notes. "In the old days, they used to fry the beans in lard, but that doesn't happen anymore." When a customer places an order, kopitiam baristas will place these ground beans in a thick long "sock," a coffee strainer made out of cloth that over time adds to the coffee's flavor, Seetoh notes, as the sock is usually rinsed well but not cleaned thoroughly with soap at the end of the day. Then, they'll run hot water through the beans in the sock and directly into a thick, squat coffee cup that's already been filled with condensed milk or evaporated milk (or sometimes both) and sugar.

Kopi C literally means coffee with just evaporated milk, the "C" coming from Carnation, which is the canned-milk brand of choice for most Singaporean kopitiams. Kopi O means black coffee, as "o" is the word for black in Fukienese; kopi siutai means you'd like less sugar; kopi kosong (Malay for "zero") means you'd like to skip the sugar altogether. Then there is kopi tarik, which means "pulled coffee," as the coffee is poured back and forth between two giant metal mugs in order to cool it slightly before serving. Some believe that the aeration of the coffee by "pulling" it into long ribbons between the two mugs adds to the flavor of the beverage. The same options are offered with tea—or teh, as Singaporeans call it. Finally, there is the ultimate kopitiam concoction: yin yang, which is a combination of half coffee and half tea, evaporated milk and so forth.

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Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York-based food and fashion writer. She is the author of the recently released A Tiger In The Kitchen, a food memoir about learning about her family in Singapore by cooking with them.

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