Coffee in Singapore is really its own thing — and this is good.
I moved up through the crowd and reached over a shoulder to lay down a few coins on the counter of a booth in a cafe and placed my order. I stood for a moment and watched an old, grey haired Chinese man in a white undershirt pick up a metal kettle that had an enormously long spout, lift it up in the air, and pour an airborne stream of steaming black liquid into a big glass mug. A spoon full of thick yellow condensed milk was then scooped in, the contents stirred until they were spinning fast and the colors were congealing together, and it was handed over to me.
It was coffee, Singapore style.
Kopi is simply the Malay word for coffee — the words are synonymous, but the substances they represent are nowhere near each other’s equal. To put it basely, comparing coffee in Singapore to coffee as it is traditionally prepared in the West is like comparing a back-country USA pig roast to a pork chop. It’s just not the same. Though it’s not the materials that make coffee in Singapore so good — I believe the beans are crap — but the method. In Singapore, coffee is prepared like the main course of a meal rather than just being hot water poured over some grounds into a cup. The end effect is so different that I am going to use the Malay word for it, as calling it mere coffee doesn’t do justice to the shear distinction.
Singaporean Kopi was first created in the early 1900s when Chinese domestics in the homes of foreigners began quitting their jobs en masse to open cafes and food stalls to serve the city’s budding working class population. They brought the high brow Western custom of coffee drinking with them into the streets of Singapore. Though there was only one caveat: they were poor and could only afford the lowest quality beans. So to make them salable, they first fried them in woks with butter or a clump of lard and sugar. They would then strain it through a sock and load it up with condensed milk. This resulted in a very think, very sweet, and very textured coffee creation.
This stuff is the cheesecake of coffee.
Coffee needs fat. If you’re not putting butter, lard, or coconut oil into your daily doses of coffee you’re missing the plot. Singaporeans figured this out long ago, and they now have what is clearly one of the best coffee preparation practices on the planet.
There is also almost an infinite variety of kopi:
Kopi is coffee and condensed milk.
Kopi-0 is black coffee with sugar
Kopi C is black coffee with evaporated milk and sugar
Kopi Kosong is black coffee without sugar and milk
Kopi Gah Dai is black coffee with extra condensed milk
Kopi Siew Dai is coffee with condensed milk and less sugar
Kopi Po is a more watered down coffee with condensed milk
Kopi Gau is strong coffee with condensed milk
Kopi O Gau is like a triple expresso with sugar
Kopi Di Lo is extra thick coffee
Kopi Peng is iced coffee with condensed milk
Kopi O Peng is iced black coffee with sugar
On and on and on . . .
Almost needless to say, coffee shops, called kopi tiam — an admixture of the Malay word for coffee with the Fujianese word for shop — are at the center of social life in Singapore. These small hawker centers are assemblages of street food booths and kopi makers. More than 2,000 of them cover every neighborhood, district, and cranny of the city — they are really everywhere. Singaporeans go to their local kopi tiam come by each day and drink coffee or beer, talk with their neighbors, play checkers, and just hang out. “Coffee talk” is how Singaporeans refer to gossip.
It is said that kopi tiams are to Singapore what bars are to the West, but I have to disagree. At least in the USA there is no equivalent — we no longer have such ritualistic, cohesive social spaces.
I took my big glass mug of kopi and found a seat in the open air food court. I stirred the thick condensed milk in with the thick coffee. I sat in the rickety plastic chair, drank slowly, and watched people and cars pass by as the shadows from the old shop houses in front of me grew longer and longer.
Kopi is a good example of how many things are done in Singapore: the people here took what was good in the cultures that surrounded them, combined it altogether, ran it through a filter of unique circumstances, and came up with something far superior.