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.
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.