“One soy latte with a shot of organic coconut oil” – now that’s how you don’t order coffee like a Singapore local. It’s also how you make your colleagues spit out their kopi peng (that’s iced coffee for rookies) in shock when you hand over $8.50 for your straight-out-of-Surry Hills morning caffeine hit.
Singapore isn’t immune to the artisanal coffee wave – local baristas can cold brew with the best of them. But, determined not to be an obnoxious expat, I converted to kopi (Malay for coffee) and now I’m a believer.
If this is your first time, know that kopi has a serious kick. The intense brew beloved by locals hails from the migrant Hainanese coffee shop owners of the 1900s. Robusta beans (Arabica’s bitter, highly caffeinated cousin) are roasted over coals and with sugar and butter for a caramelised, chocolatey taste.
There’s a dance to the kopi-making process. The grounds are brewed in tall pots lined with a long ‘coffee sock’, and the mixture is skillfully poured back and forth between two pots for a smooth, dense drink. Baristas pre-heat a demitasse-sized cup with a swirl of boiled water, and the coffee is poured from a height for a bit of froth factor. The damage? Around $1.20 a cup.
Once upon a time, empty tin cans of evap milk were used as takeaway cups – I’m told some of the older kopitiams still use the tee kong (tin can), but I’m yet to spot one in the wild. Still, don’t be surprised when you see corporate types in the CBD swinging a plastic bag of kopi on the way to the office…
The perfect partners for kopi? Kaya toast and runny, half-boiled eggs laced with pepper and dark soy sauce.
Get Adam Liaw's recipe for kaya toast with half-cooked eggs and Kopi O right here.
Here’s how to order your kopi your way...
Singapore kopi decoded...
Kopi: coffee with condensed milk
Kopi Gao: strong with condensed milk
Kopi C: with sugar and evaporated milk
Kopi O kosong: black
Kopi O: black with sugar
Kopi O siew dai: black with less sugar
Kopi peng: iced coffee with condensed milk
Kopi gu yu: coffee with butter
Kopi sua: make that two
Kopi ta bao or even better, kopi ‘bao: make that to go
Where to try it?
Heap Seng Leong
Heap Seng Leong, off the North Bridge Road Market, is the real deal with weathered marble tables, cheap-as-chips kaya toast and a clientele of gents spending the day with their kopi and Chinese newspaper. The silver-haired, 80-year-old owner, Mr Shi, has miraculously kept the mid-century feel – and pace – and he still makes the kopi in pyjama pants. The signature brew is a smooth and chocolatey kopi gu yu, with melted butter – wait, isn’t that bulletproof coffee? Heap Seng Leong was ahead of its time.
Blk 10 North Bridge Road, #01-5109, Singapore 190010
Tong Ah Eating House
Tong Ah has been around since 1939 and was once a front for a gambling den in the iconic heritage building on the corner of Teck Lim and Keong Saik road. That spot is now home to the achingly hip Potato Head burger joint and bar, but Tong Ah Eating House is just across the road, and still serving its famous kopi, made by fourth-generation baristas.
35 Keong Saik Road, Singapore
Sure, Killiney is now one of Singapore’s most famous chains of coffee houses, but it all started here in 1919 at the original hole-in-the-wall on Killiney Road. While its late, great barista known as Ah Gong made his mark with a whopping 54-year run, the consensus amongst kopi fans is that this branch is still the best.
67 Killiney Road; Singapore 239525
Lau Pa Sat Festival Market
You haven’t had a true kopi experience until you’ve stammered your order to a surly ‘kopi auntie’ who pours half of your drink into the saucer. But I’m a sucker for a barista who knows my order, and who serves it with a smile, so this is my personal favourite: iconic hawker centre Lau Pa Sat is guilty of having a coffee stall at every 10 paces, but it’s worth seeking out the one on the corner of Robinson Rd and Cross Street. The kopi queen of this patch, Shu Xing He, is so damn good she pours orders for her regulars when she sees them on approach. Now that makes for good kopi.
18 Raffles Quay, Singapore 048582
Find out more about Singapore's specialties with Donal's Asian Baking Adventures, double episodes 8.30pm Sundays on SBS Food (Channel 33) with streaming on SBS On Demand.