While there is no shortage of chain coffee outlets in Singapore, the truly unique Singapore experience is about heading to a kopitiam (coffee shop) and trying local coffee, tea or other drinks which you won’t find anywhere else. Aside from being a great way to rest your feet and refuel, a stop at a kopitiam is a must-do activity in Singapore.
The word kopitiam itself is a testament to Singapore’s rich multicultural heritage: it is a combination of kopi, the Malay/Hokkien term for coffee, and tiam, the Hokkien/Hakka term for shop. Kopitiams are found in various incarnations around Singapore — from air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls to counters that will serve up fresh local coffee — but the real kopitiam experience is an open air ‘hawker centre’ or mamak stall serving local food and drinks. Local coffee, or kopi, is in itself different from coffee you’ll find in other parts of the world. The beans are roasted with butter or margarine and sugar, then brewed inside a white cloth bag placed in a large metal pot with a long, narrow spout. The result is a thicker brew and more intense taste than you’d find at your local Starbucks.
When confronted with the variety of options, however, it’s not unusual for a first-time visitor to feel overwhelmed. Ask for a standard kopi and you’ll get a cup of coffee with sweetened condensed milk (fresh milk is never used). If you prefer it less sweet, ask for kopi C – coffee with unsweetened evaporated milk and sugar, or kopi C kosong – coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar. Kosong is the Malay word for zero or empty, so ordering kopi kosong means you won’t get any sugar. If you prefer your coffee black, ask for kopi O (black, with sugar) or kopi O kosong (black and, you guessed it, no sugar). Substitute the word kopi for teh in any of the above combinations and you’ll get tea.
Of course, there’s the added option of teh halia (tea with ginger), hailed as a cure-all whether you have a cold and a headache, or have just had a difficult morning. And if it’s too hot for any of the above, ask for kopi peng – which gets you an iced coffee. If you prefer to stay away from caffeine completely, you’ll find plenty of options available: ask for a hot Horlicks or Milo (both malted milk drinks, the latter being much more chocolatey) or an iced version of either one. If you really want something special to Instagram, ask for a Milo Dinosaur, a cup of iced Milo with a heap of powdered Milo on top, or a Milo Godzilla, an iced Milo topped with ice cream or whipped cream and possibly more powdered Milo.
For something much lighter, ask for a bandung, a cold, milk-based drink flavoured with rose syrup and sometimes with the added aroma of pandan leaves – a refreshing, sweet and very pink drink to beat the heat!
If you don’t want to stop at drinking, add food to your kopitiam experience in Singapore. Kaya toast and soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce are part of a standard Singaporean breakfast with kopi; in a mamak shop, you might want to pair your teh halia with a roti prata, or your bandung with a nasi biryani. Just for fun, try a different combination every day.