25 Jul 2012

Food - Must Eats -

Kopi-o to Macchiato: Coffee in Singapore, An Introduction

From kopi-O to macchiato, Singaporeans wake up to that dark brew that powers the world at every break of dawn.


From kopi-O to macchiato, Singaporeans wake up to that dark brew that powers the world at every break of dawn.

At breakfast tables throughout the island, it is poured from ready-made sachets, as the stupor cast by slumber fades into the rhythm of a busy day. And which Singaporean has not grown up amidst the hubbub of the kopitiam?

It is the beat of heartland life, personified by the sharp sounds of teaspoons whirring milky brew against mugs, a most familiar sound punctured by the hoarse shouts of orders by the kopitiam ah cheks.

Our nation has a rich history. While our success story is often repeated in textbooks and on tongues of those who can remember, the humble kopi, has passed largely inconspicuously through the passage of time. This is its story.

Coffee is not just a drink. It's a culture and has it's history. 


The coffee bean is the second most traded commodity on earth, surpassed only by the other black gold; crude oil. Growing around the equatorial belt, coffee has been in Southeast Asia since 1696, where Dutch settlers first planted the prized seeds in Java.

The descendants of those very first plants in Dutch Batavia were probably the first few beans that landed in the hands of Hainanese immigrants who will soon discover a lucrative trade in it.

Many of the migrants from Hainan worked for colonial households and from there a taste for the bitter brew developed. As they learnt the art of serving coffee on British tables, the first local coffee shops began to start business. But far from just a colonial imitation of the European coffee house, the kopitiams are a world of their own.

The coffee beans are not roasted in the general Western sense. Rather, they are roasted in small hand-operated contraptions with corn, sugar and butter (or with lard, which is not the case today). The resulting beans are ground and coffee is served through straining powder and hot water through a stocking, using brewing pots with long snouts that were specifically designed for this purpose.

The kopitiams rapidly became the place for many to get breakfast, play checkers, pass the day, and had a whole host of customs and idiosyncrasies.

The “baristas” or kopi tau chew would be dressed in pocket less striped pajama pants for the simple reason as to prevent them from pocketing profits. For customers who cannot afford to pay for the coffee outright, a polite “face saving” measure is to turn the cup facing down, upon which credit is discretely extended.

Also, one would eat a slice of cool butter with coffee, to establish bodily balance after drinking what is considered a “heaty” beverage.

As time passes, the process of providing coffee became industrialized with local roasters buying Indonesian beans, and factory roasting coffee for the use of the myriad kopitiams that have sprung throughout the island. Some like Owl Coffee have become local house brand favorites.

Packing the taste of the good o' days

From kopitiam to Shopping Centre

Even as Singaporeans move from kampongs to HDB estates, the kopitiams have followed. Though many are now part of the food courts that dot the heartlands, a few have carved a name for themselves.

Riding on a newfound wave of nostalgia, Ya Kun Kaya Toast have spread the love for kaya (sweet coconut jam) quite literally on old-school crispy toast, kopi and runny eggs, right into the air-conditioned sanctuaries of our shopping centres. 

Another well known kopitiam, Killeney too have since ventured into providing the same old school experience in air-conditioned comfort. Nanyang Old Coffee, with its dedicated museum for local coffee culture, is the latest in a long line of revivalist kopitiams.

Now, there are dozens of kaya toast, egg and kopi establishments surrounding the island. Each morning, as the crowds of office salarymen and women ascend from MRTs pit stops are made at these CBD kopitiams, kopi in styrofoam cups, toast with butter and kaya munched and eggs slurped as part of the commute to cubicles.

For a few years, the future of coffee seems to be between the kopitiams, their incarnates and chain coffee stores. That was before things got brewing in the late 2000s.

"Black as the devil, hot as hell, pure as an angel, sweet as love." Like the French statesmen Talleyrand, we heart our coffee.

The Indie Invasion

It is a Wednesday afternoon in Tiong Bahru.

Just off Yong Siak Road in a sleepy corner of British era SIT flats, the usual (perhaps unusual elsewhere but welcome to Singapore’s hippest  neighbourhood) conurbation of yuppies, hipsters and a couple of ah cheks sit in a cafe. Radiohead is playing softly in the air.

Welcome to the nouveau kopitiam.

In a post-Haji Lane era, Tiong Bahru is now the new indie counterculture beacon. Independent bookstores, local fashion boutiques are nestled between revamped blocks of 1950s art-deco public housing, privy to only those in the know. And what Haji Lane had with shisha, coffee is the drug of choice, and the dealers are more than ample.

40 Hands is one example. Winning effusive praise and accolades, it is a small space opposite local bookstore Books Actually.

Decorated in an eclectic mix of nostalgia and grunge-chic, it packs the young and fashionable, the coffee experts/aficionados and those passing by. Singaporean coffee has definitely gone sexier.

Aficionados are taking coffee into their own hands by roasting the beans themselves.

New Tastes

As Singaporeans venture overseas, and as tastes graduated to the bolder Western palate, an interesting phenomenon has transpired of late.

Developing an appreciation for the finer espresso based coffee while working or studying abroad, some Singaporeans having returned,  have fallen in love with the bean and as risky as it sounds, opened cafes on their own.

With a distinct, Australian influence, the prevalence of these new joints is mind-boggling. It seems that a new cafe opens every other week. Serving the usual trinity of drinks and their permutations as with the chains (latte, cappuccino, espresso, mocha, e.t.c) these cafes range from hole in the wall to comfortable havens to will away a weekend afternoon.

It seems we have come full circle.

Our love affair with the coffee bean came with the post colonial heartland kopi, influenced by the Western tradition for coffee but made our own, through ingenious local recipes and local take to the standard breakfast.

 As we spread abroad, to the distant constellation of cities in the West, that love for the bean has manifested itself again. And just as our forebears have opened their stalls, so have we in this new generation.

Perhaps our nation is in under the indelible, unchanging influence of the coffee bean. Some have made fortunes through the trade, and already a younger generation is breathing new life and new definition to the humble kopi.

Join us next week as we discover the top 5 local joints, to get your caffeine fix.

Visit us again for your next caffeine fix!

By Norafiq Ismail


Read the stories of Singaporeans living overseas.