Getting to the bottom of coffee culture in Singapore

October 9, 2019

While every nation has its own unique caffeine scene, no one does coffee quite like Singapore. The age-old tradition of kopitiam or coffee-shop culture is both an excellent example of the blend of Eastern and Western cultures in this melting-pot region of South East Asia and a taste sensation that’s well worth writing home about.

Singaporeans order their coffee or kopi from the same person every morning at “hawker stalls,” community food courts in neighbourhood food markets. Kopi means coffee in Malay. Traditionally mom and pop businesses, these kopi stalls are ever-present, in hundreds of hawker centres throughout the city, operating from early morning until suppertime, just like the food markets themselves. Your kopi guy may not know your name, but he knows what you’re having and will start making your coffee the minute he sees you — which you take to-go in a plastic bag with a straw, for about $1.25. (Cups are available, too, but this costs more; perhaps a small price to pay in the war against plastic.) Yes, everybody walks into their offices with a plastic bag of coffee. And usually, a breakfast bite of some kind.

When it comes to how you take your coffee, the ordering process is a model of efficiency. Unlike Western coffee names, which can get quite long depending on how complicated your coffee ritual, Singaporeans order their coffees by specific names: Kopi is coffee with sweet condensed milk, Kopi O is coffee with sugar but no milk, Kopi C is coffee with evaporated milk and sugar, most similar to our regular coffee order. The list goes on: Kopi Poh is weak coffee with more water added, while Kopi Gau is stronger, given an extra shot.

Singapore’s kopi culture dates back to the 19th century and the influx of immigrants who came to work at this busy trading post. Locals opened coffee shops to satisfy the European workers, the cultures mingling and the tastes morphing. The high-quality Arabica beans that Europeans were used to were too expensive, so lower-quality Robusta beans which were brought in from Indonesia, which were stronger and more suitable to South East Asia’s growing climate. As fancy European coffeemakers were not available, coffee-shop owners used flannel “socks” they filtered the coffee through, with sugar and sweet evaporated milk being the favoured flavour of the day. And it still is: Singaporeans generally like their coffee sweet and thick. Kopi Gu You is coffee with condensed milk, sugar and a pad of butter, a very traditional way to enjoy a quiet coffee moment.

Very much like café culture in Europe, Singaporeans will actually take the time to sit down and relax with a cup of coffee, sharing the news of the day. There’s even a particular kind of floral-patterned cup you will see absolutely everywhere. Nicer shopping centres have fancier kopi kiosks of course, a few of them branded chains, selling toasted snacks along with kopi (Singapore is obsessed with toast). But there’s nothing like a nice, cold kopi peng from your neighbourhood auntie or uncle. They’ve been making coffee for 40 years, so you know it’s going to be good.

Getting there

Check out our small group tours to Singapore here.

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