Despite the Asian population and British colonial heritage, coffee, not tea, is the national drink of Singapore. Actually, strike that—kopi is the national drink of Singapore; order "coffee" somewhere and you'll be handed a cup of Nescafe.
Kopi is a dark and full bodied brew, less bitter (and, you could argue, more aromatic) than Vietnamese versions, but with the same subtle caramel-sweetness that comes from canned condensed or evaporated milk. A cup of kopi is short compared to Starbucksian mega-lattes: 6 to 8 ounces (if that); a good thing, as Singaporeans can down as many as four to six cups a day.
Most importantly: it's good. There wasn't a single cup of coffee I didn't like on my trip. Compared to the burnt, over-milked and -sweetened stuff from your average New York bodega, workaday kopi is roasty-toasty liquid gold, no fedora required.
How it's Made
Kopi is typically made with high-caffeine robusta beans, not the arabica that dominates the Western premium market. The flavor from these beans may not be as nuanced, delicate, and unique as the ultra-fancy brews in hip cafes, but Singapore's caffeine fascination means the kopi in your cup is almost always freshly roasted from a nearby roaster. Kopitiams (coffee houses that serve kopi, breakfast items like kaya toast and boiled eggs, as well as some lunch items, depending on the spot) grind their beans on-site, and some do their own roasting, with carefully guarded recipes.
Coffee first becomes Singaporean kopi with the roasting process: the beans are roasted with butter or margarine (or lard!), and sometimes sugar, to lend them an especially rich, dark character. The shells turn oily and aromatic, caramelized and browned, but not burnt.
Once ground, the beans are brewed in a long-spouted pot inside a "sock," a small cloth sack that acts as an infuser. When your order is up, the slightly concentrated brew is poured into a small cup and mixed with your choice of canned dairy (never fresh), sugar, and water to thin out the cup. Look forward to sipping an intense but not overbearing drink with a subtle creaminess and surprising aromatic highlights.
How to Order
Singaporeans are as picky about their kopi as they are about their food: not only do they have their favorite kopitiams, but their favorite coffeemakers at each kopitiam as well. So it's no surprise that a cup of kopi can be customized however you like. Here are the Singlish terms you can use to order kopi anywhere.
- Kopi: The default cup of kopi is made with sweetened condensed milk (no sugar needed). Fresh milk wasn't available early on in the country's history, so Singaporeans made do with canned. Now, even though the country imports everything from rice to geoduck, the taste for canned dairy remains.
- Kopi C: With unsweetened evaporated milk and sugar. A little less sweet, creamy, and caramel-like than standard kopi, perhaps more balanced for Western tastes and those without a sweet tooth.
- Kopi C Kosong: With evaporated milk, no sugar.
- Kopi O: No milk, with sugar.
- Kopi O Kosong: No milk, no sugar.
You can also order your kopi strong (gau) or weak (poh; both with condensed milk by default); more (gah dai) or less (siu dai) sweet; and on ice (peng; with milk and sugar).
If the storm of suffixes is too much to think about, just start with a kopi or kopi C and adjust your subsequent orders appropriately. Just don't order "coffee." Remember: Nescafe.
Where to Drink
Kopitiam culture is as important to Singapore as kopi itself. Kopitiams are places for everything from hurried, slurped-down meals to long, convivial meetings with friends. In a country where mealtime is a fluid concept, and plenty of lower-paid workers still take many of their meals in quick bites, kopitiams tie neighborhoods together. They offer a space where you can ground yourself in Singapore's "everything in all the places all the time" urban rush.
You'll find kopitiams everywhere, but I did pick up some favorite spots on my trip. The photo on the right and the kopi up top comes from Tong Ah Eating House in Chinatown, a fourth-generation family business that does everything the old fashioned way, to great success. It afforded me the best people watching during my visit, to say nothing of some killer kaya toast.
You'll also find Killiney kopitiams here and there—Killiney is a national chain that retains the charm of its family business, and its preservative-free kaya is nothing to sneeze at either. But don't feel like you need to seek out one or two specific kopitiams. When you're drinking six cups of kopi a day, you have room to experiment.
More on Singapore
- An Introduction to Singaporean Food »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 25 Singaporean Dishes You Should You Know »
- Snapshots from Singapore: 10 Must-Eat Singaporean Breakfasts »
- Snapshots from Singapore: A Must-Try Pork Jerky-Kaya Toast Sandwich Hack »
- Snapshots from Singapore: The To-Go Bag »
Note: Max's recent trip to Singapore was arranged by the Singapore Tourism Board. Special thanks to our awesome guide, Garry Koh.