HISTORY OF KOPI
Singapore had her first taste of Kopi in the early 1900s. Back then, many Chinese worked as domestics for the influx of foreign businessmen. But soon, they quit their jobs en masse to start up food stalls — what we still fondly call kopitiams — to serve the budding European working population. With these kopitiams came the high brow Western custom of coffee drinking.
Alas, the locals were too poor to afford the high-quality Arabica beans that the Westerners so fancied for a premium brew, the very same ones that make your fancy Starbucks lattes. They could only afford the cheaper Robusta beans, which were bitter to the bone with almost twice the caffeine content of Arabica beans.
So in a stroke of genius, they roasted the Robusta beans with lard, butter or sugar in a wok, caramelising the harsher tasting Robusta beans. These beans are then strained through a sock — who needs the French press, really? — and mixed with condensed milk creating Singapore’s signature wake up call in a cup: the wonderfully thick and beautifully textured Kopi.
Similar to calling for an extra shot of espresso or pump of sugar syrup in your Western coffee, you can customise your own Kopi as well. In Singapore, we use a slew of mind-boggling vernacular to order variations of our standard Kopi. This is how we do it:
KOPI’S PARTNERS IN CRIME
Kopi was not the only thing adapted from the Europeans, we’ve also stolen and modified their entire traditional breakfast set. Just as coffee is accompanied by English toast and eggs in Europe, we have our very own kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs in Singapore.
Kaya, a curd consisting of coconut, eggs, green pandan leaves and sugar, was introduced to Singapore by the Chinese ship workers back in the 19th century and still remains a national favourite to this day. This, lathered on thin, crispy, buttered toast, coupled with the runny soft-boiled eggs and a cup of aromatic Kopi is the best way to start your day, the Singaporean way!
BETCHA DIDN’T KNOW
If you are a Singapore reading this post, you might go “CHEY so what! I even know how to order Phah Kiu Peng (Milo Peng), Neslo (Coffee-milo) and Yuan-Yang (Coffee-tea) ok!”
Well here’s a side of our kopitiam culture that you’ve probably never heard of before!
1. In the 1930s, coffee roasters fried the beans with opium-infused water to make customers addicted to the brew and to keep them coming back for more.
2. According to Chef Willin Low of Singapore’s Wild Rocket fusion restaurant, ordering a “butter kopi” (or “Kopi Gu You“) in the past was a sign of wealth as butter was expensive back then.
3. After gambling dens were outlawed in Singapore in 1829, a couple of kopitiams actually became a front to house illegal gambling activities for the Samsengs (gangsters). Of course, that all stopped when Singapore re-legalised gambling. So rest assured that gang fights and gambling aren’t going on the other side of the false wall you’re sitting by as you sip on your Kopi C Siew Dai.
KOPITIAM CULTURE IS HERE TO STAY
With over 2,000 of them dotting our sunny island and covering every nook and cranny of our land, the kopitiam is a perfect example of the cultural amalgamation that has made Singapore so unique; as proven by its own name: Kopi, which means ‘coffee’ in Malay, and Tiam, which means ‘shop’ in Hokkien. There is a myriad of ways to explore Singapore — it’s top-notch casino, iconic places like Gardens By The Bay and the Singapore Flyer, and even its museums. But a ubiquitous sight, and pretty much the most authentic representation of Singapore, will always remain as the kopitiam.
By Rachel Lim
If you prefer lounge chairs and the sharp hiss of the steamer over the clanking of glass kopi cups, perhaps the Western coffee scene is more for you. Check out our latest video, COFFEE inspired by the director of Transformers, Michael Bay: