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.
And ’tis a “mind-boggling vernacular.” Yes, we know enough words to order our favorite drinks. I prefer teh or peng (iced black tea with sugar); he, kopi si siu dai (coffee with evaporated milk and “less sugar”). And you?
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The Chope! Project by the little dröm store explores the unique lexicon of Singapore’s kopitiam culture. The project’s glasses and magnets, each illuminating a particular word or phrase (“teh gau kah dai peng,” “kopi-o poh siu dai,” “Yum Seng!”), are delightful. I intend to get my hands on Chope!: The Eccentric Lingoes of Singapore’s Kopitiam Culture, a beautifully designed, exquisitely typeset book, for the vocabulary I haven’t yet mastered.
Buy your kopitiam trinkets at the little dröm store (7 Ann Siang Hill) or online at shop.thelittledromstore.com.
(Additional credits: Photographs via The Chope! Project by the little dröm store.)