By CHERYL LU-LIEN TAN Published: June 29, 2012 New York Times
At just after 9 a.m., the morning crowd at Heap Seng Leong kopitiam — coffee shop, in Singaporean vernacular — was steadily thickening. The thin veneer on our wood table was chipped; my plastic chair stuck to the back of my legs. And the scrawny man who materialized as soon as we sat grunted with impatience when we paused to think before ordering.
And yet, when our coffees, saucers of watery soft-boiled eggs and crisp slices of toast slathered with thick yellow butter and kaya, an eggy coconut jam, showed up soon after, I recognized the moment for what it was: a perfect kopitiam experience in Singapore.
There are many ways to explore Singapore — through its casinos, its busy night clubs, its botanical gardens. As a youth there, I became well acquainted with its Burger Kings and malls. But I realized during visits from the United States that the most authentic view of the city is always at a kopitiam: one of the old-school coffee shops that dot almost every neighborhood in the country, serving up cheap breakfasts, uniquely Singaporean coffee and, later in the day, cold beer and simple meals.
“In Western countries, they have pubs; in Singapore, we have kopitiams,” said Leslie Tay, a doctor and writer who created one of Singapore’s most popular food blogs, I Eat I Shoot I Post. “The kopitiam is the center of life for many Singapore neighborhoods. You can sit at the kopitiam and watch the old men sitting around for hours, drinking beer and talking, playing a game of checkers.”
The word kopitiam itself reflects the polyglot culture of Singapore — “kopi” is the Malay word for coffee, while “tiam” is the Hokkien (or Fukienese) word for shop. Kopitiams are usually open-air affairs, some resembling mini food courts, packed with a handful of food stalls, on the first floor of the ubiquitous government-built apartment complexes that span whole blocks. While Singapore coffee culture today also thrives in hawker centers — essentially, sprawling outdoor food courts — and in a growing number of spiffy, sometimes air-conditioned, modern kopitiams, the setting at such places tends to be colder, the eating and drinking perfunctory.
They hardly resemble the kopitiams that first proliferated in this former British colony in the 1900s, created when Chinese men who had been hired to cook in expat homes began leaving and opening coffee shops to offer cheap meals to a growing working class. These Chinese cooks introduced the British habit of drinking coffee to Singaporeans, along with staples like toast and eggs for breakfast.
The coffee they served up was unlike any found in Western coffee shops, though; because the cooks could often afford only cheap beans, they enhanced their aroma by wok-frying them with butter (or lard) and sugar.
The resulting basic kopi is a cup of thick coffee, strained through a cloth sock several inches long and packed with teaspoons of sugar and sweet condensed milk. Of course, there are many variations on the standard — evaporated milk, less sugar, etc. — that have spawned a mind-boggling vernacular.
At Heap Seng Leong (Block 10, North Bridge Road, No. 01-5109), though ordering coffee can be a complicated affair, the food choices are simple. Between mouthfuls of runny egg spiked with white pepper and squirts of sweet, dark soy sauce, I scanned the gallery of older men lining one wall — one was fast asleep, his head so far down on his chest his large belly almost cradled it. The kopitiam “ah cheks” (Hokkien for “uncles”) outside were embroiled in a heated conversation I could barely make out — except for the word “kar chng” (“backside”) at one point.
At a small counter next to the abacus, which served as the cash register, a man wearing striped pajama bottoms and a thin white sleeveless T-shirt made an endless stream of kopis. Whenever anyone ordered kaya toast, rhythmic scraping noises would soon fill the air — a server removing the burned bits with the lid of a metal can.
The contrasting flavors and textures in these breakfasts is always heavenly: the zing of white pepper counters the salty sweetness of soy sauce, the warm goo of soft eggs and thick kopi vie with the crispness of toast.
At Chin Mee Chin Confectionery (204 East Coast Road), on the slender artery that slices through Singapore’s sleepy Eastern shore, the setting is a little more inviting. Housed in a prewar shophouse, it has the trappings of kopitiams of yore: slender wooden chairs and tables outfitted with pristine white marble tops. Its cups are traditional kopitiam cups, squat, small and very thick all around, specially designed to preserve the heat of the contents.
Unlike many kopitiams, which rely on kaya from a can, Chin Mee Chin makes its own kaya, which has a slightly more eggy aroma and is denser than most. And it serves up kaya on hot rolls baked at the shop. (Its house-made custard puffs and British-style sausage rolls are also popular with a slightly different crowd — neighborhood church ladies and the iPhone-wielding set alike.)
The success of some of these kopitiams has led to a “McDonaldization” of two of Singapore’s oldest: Ya Kun and Killiney Kopitiam, both of which date back to the early 20th century and have morphed into chains with dozens of locations across the country. I’d been to many of Killiney’s gleaming new outlets, but had never been to the first, which opened in 1919 in an old shophouse (67 Killiney Road) near the shopping district. So my father and I made a pilgrimage there one morning.
The breakfast menu was more extensive than the ones at most kopitiams. In addition to house-made kaya on toast or paired with French toast, Killiney has an impressive lineup that includes chicken curry with a baguette for dipping as well as noodle dishes like laksa and mee siam. My father’s French toast was a perfectly decent rendition; its kaya pairing turned out to be essential, upping its flavor by several notches. And my roti prata (Indian bread) with chicken curry was delicious.
Our Killiney food experience brought to mind an old kopitiam in this city’s Chinatown that I had heard was as beloved for its dinners as it was for its kopi and kaya toast. So as soon as we could eat again, my father and I trekked to Tong Ah Eating House (36 Keong Saik Road), an open-air kopitiam in a triangular building. “We are four generations,” Tang Chew Fue, the owner of Tong Ah, said, explaining that his great-grandfather founded the kopitiam in 1939 with a secret recipe that involved roasting three kinds of coffee beans with sugar and butter.
We ordered a sampling of dishes for dinner: braised tofu topped with a scrumptious mound of minced pork sautéed with salty pickled radishes; claypot-cooked chicken coated in a gingery garlicky glaze; a large omelet packed with juicy oysters; and a platter of noodles featuring tender beef. Each dish was more delicious than the last — and the meal (which fed my sister as well) cost the equivalent of just $29.
As rich as our kopitiam experiences had been so far, there was a holy grail I had yet to reach. For years, I had heard of a mythical kopi but had never seen it. “Butter kopi,” Willin Low, chef of Singapore’s Wild Rocket fusion restaurant, had said with great reverence when I asked him about it. “It’s basically coffee with butter in it. Years ago, butter was expensive, so butter coffee became a symbol of wealth.”
In my kopitiam adventures, I had asked for butter kopi at a few places, only to be met with quizzical looks. On a trip to Hua Bee Restaurant (Block 78 Moh Guan Terrace, No. 01-19), a dusty little kopitiam that’s been around since the 1940s, however, the kopi uncle was unfazed. All he said was “Twenty cents extra,” before disappearing and returning with a thick square of butter on a toothpick, which he then popped into my coffee.
I watched, transfixed, as the edges of the yellow square got fuzzy then dissolved. Within a minute, just a glistening film on my kopi remained. Giving it a stir, I took a sip; it was a little greasy and had a very faint salty element to it.
When I asked the kopi uncle about butter coffee, he shrugged it off, saying, “Not anything special, lah.” And perhaps he was right — flavorwise, there wasn’t anything distinctive that might make the extra 20 cents worthwhile.
But when you took into account the steamed slices of kaya-topped bread, a phalanx of ah-cheks sitting nearby, slowly sipping their kopi, the sounds of a sleepy morning slowly rousing around me in the kopitiam, I realized the kopi uncle was wrong. There was, indeed, something special here.
ORDER LIKE A LOCAL
Unlike Singapore’s other attractions, kopitiams don’t always cater to tourists. Below is a glossary that will help you order like an insider.
KOPI Coffee with sugar and condensed milk.
KOPI C Coffee with sugar and lighter evaporated milk instead of condensed milk. (The “C” stands for “Carnation,” the longtime go-to brand for most kopitiams.)
KOPI KOSONG Coffee with no sugar (“kosong” is zero in Malay).
KOPI O Black coffee.
KOPI O POH Diluted black coffee with sugar.
KOPI PENG Coffee with sugar and condensed milk, over ice.
YUAN YANG Half-coffee, half-tea combination, with sugar and condensed milk.