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.

So if you like your beverage a particular way like I do, ordering one can be a mouthful. A simple iced tea with less sugar and only evaporated milk becomes teh C peng (Fukienese for ice) siutai. You get the idea.

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scaredy_kat/flickr

In recent years, the Singapore coffee craze has taken on a new life due in part to the proliferation of a few chains of modernized kopitiams that have sprung up across the island nation. Ya Kun Kaya Toast, a kopitiam business originally founded in 1944, for example, now runs more than 30 outlets in Singapore, many of them air-conditioned and mall-like. At the similarly spiffed-up Killiney Kopitiam chain, originally founded in a tiny shophouse along Singapore's Killiney Road in 1919, baristas now serve up traditional breakfasts of kaya toast and coffee as well as fancy French toast and bowls of spicy laksa. Only a handful of old-school kopitiams remain—Chin Mee Chin Confectionery along a sleepy stretch of pre-war shophouses in the country's East Coast, for example, looks untouched since the 1950s. The place, devoid of air-conditioning, is filled with the slender wooden chairs and marble tabletops that are hallmarks of traditional kopitiams. The homemade kaya here is dense, sweet, and memorable, and the eggs are always just the right amount of runny.

During a recent trip to New York City, Seetoh took some time to catch up with me over coffee at Chelsea Market. Inevitably, our reminiscing meandered toward Singapore kopitiams, of sweet kaya toasts and watery eggs jumbled together with soy sauce and hefty shakes of white pepper on that little island far, far away.

Amid the waxing, I looked down at my paper cup of coffee from Sarabeth's Bakery. It had been simple to order, to be sure, and had been perfectly adequate—initially. But as the conversation wore on, it became more and more obvious that it had a few shortcomings. Where was the intoxicating sweetness or creaminess? Where were the slightly savory tinges of kopitiam coffee? And stacked up against the powerful memory of bygone kaya toasts, my cheese danish suddenly looked wan.

As we packed up to leave, there was reason to brighten up, however. "Call me when you're back" in Singapore, Seetoh said. "We'll go get coffee."


Recipe: K.F. Seetoh's Kopitiam Coffee

    • 1/2 tablespoon sugar
    • 1.5 tablespoons condensed milk
    • 1.5 tablespoons evaporated milk
    • 1.5 tablespoons ground coffee
    • 3/4 cup hot water

Place sugar, condensed milk, and evaporated milk in a coffee cup, and the ground coffee in a cloth sock. Run hot water through the sock and into the cup. Serve immediately.

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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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