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What is a Kopitiam?

What is a Kopitiam?

“Two cups of Kopi-O!” 

“I want a Kaya Butter Toast set!” 

“One Kopi Siew Dai takeaway!” 

These are common catch phrases you might have heard as you walk past the almost-always bustling Kopitiams in the morning. Interestingly, amidst all the shouting and jostling in the crowded space, Kopitiams remain one of the most popular places that Singaporeans love to get their breakfast fix. 

Kopitiam, What’s That?

First, let’s break down the word “Kopitiam” – kopi means coffee in Malay, and tiam is the Hokkien word for shop. Hence, Kopitiam translates literally to “coffee shop”. However, locally, coffee shops are often an aggregation of several small stores including Western cuisine, noodles, mixed vegetable rice, Muslim food and more. The drinks stall, typically run by the owner of the coffee shop, would sell breakfast food and drinks. In Singapore, kopitiams are often non-air conditioned, found all across the country, from residential areas to downtown in the Central Business District (CBD). 

For the many Singaporeans who identify eating as their favourite pastime, breakfast (unsurprisingly), is an important meal of the day. Sure, there has been a rise in the number of aesthetic cafes and air-conditioned coffee joints that have populated our small city. However, nothing seems to be quite like the unique Kopitiam experience for the average Singaporean. 

Spend some time in Singapore, and you will find that locals – young and old alike, still enjoy having their breakfast at these old school, traditional, coffee shops where prices are insanely reasonable, the people are neighbourly, and where the good old kaya toast is always so comforting to the stomach. 

A typical breakfast at a kopitiam in Singapore would usually include a drink: this could be kopi (coffee), teh (tea), or milo (a sweet chocolate malt drink), coupled with traditional Singaporean breakfast food such as kaya (a sweet coconut jam) toast, and two soft-boiled eggs to top it off. This would come as a set, typically at about $2-$3. Some coffeeshops even sell these sets at less than $2! It really is quite difficult to imagine where else breakfast could be this cheap in this high-priced city of ours. 

Kopi at Kopitiams 

Probably the most popular drink on the menu, kopi. Unlike the Arabica beans that dominate the Western premium coffee market, Kopi is typically made with high-caffeine robusta beans. The flavour from these beans may not be as nuanced and delicate as the high-end, lavish brews in your aesthetic cafes, but you always be assured that kopi will give you a good kick with its dark, roast flavour. 

To make kopi, the beans are often first roasted with butter or margarine (or lard!), and sometimes sugar, to give them a richer, darker, character. The shells of the beans then turn oily and aromatic, caramelised and browned, but not burnt! Once ground, the beans are brewed in a long-spouted pot inside a "sock” – a muslin bag (a small cloth sack) that allows the aroma of the beans to permeate the piping hot water. It is then stirred using a long stick, before the brew is poured back and forth between two large kettles with upright tubular spouts tapered to the pouring end. This is done to aerate and cool the Kopi. This rich kopi has about twice as much caffeine found in Arabica coffee. If you’re looking for a good perk-me-up, you know which coffee you’re looking for!

Kopi variations include different levels of denseness, sweetness, addition of evaporated milk, condensed milk or ice. You might already know the different terms to order kopi like a pro

However, one common question is what’s the difference between Kopi and Kopi C? Well, unlike what the name suggests, Kopi C has evaporated milk while Kopi is made by adding condensed milk. In terms of taste, Kopi is much sweeter than Kopi C, while the latter has a silkier and creamier taste. Or, if you still prefer your good old black coffee, just stick to a cup of Kopi-O! 

A Space For All

In our constantly modernizing city, it might be quite peculiar how an open-air establishment like a Kopitiam still remains ever so popular, seemingly lost in time. However, perhaps the appeal of the space lies in how laid-back and communal the space is. Kopitiam in Singapore has become a vernacular for coffee shops, adding a somewhat personable touch to this quaint but ever crowded space. If you’re visiting a kopitiam, don’t be surprised to see the stall owners recognise their regular customers and even remember their orders! 

The next time you’re there having a bowl of noodles, perhaps leave some tummy space for a good cup of coffee? Or, if you don’t think you’re ready to battle the heat and quite much prefer having your coffee at home, enjoy Singapore coffee with our NESPRESSO®* compatible capsules you can brew at the comfort of your homes!

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