The complex history of Singapore and its native coffee drink, Kopi, are deeply intertwined. Whether you’re visiting Singapore or a coffee aficionado that wants to try making it yourself, Kopi is a beverage and culture well worth your time. Kopi comes in both traditional hot as well as the iced kopi version which tends to be more popular with younger folks. Follow us as we bring you through everything you need to know about Kopi, Singapore local coffee.
What is kopi?
Be warned: if you try ordering “coffee” in Singapore, you will likely get a cup of Nescafe. “Kopi” is the Malaysian word for coffee but the Singapore style is so specific that the word could be said to have two meanings. Kopi means coffee in many countries and you may have noted that the notorious civet coffee is called “kopi luwak.”
Singaporean kopi is unrelated. You know the coffee beans you use, like these espresso beans? Kopi is made with different beans. The beans are roasted using a special process and filtered by hand. We will explain this roasting process in detail below.
The act of serving kopi, while utterly unlike Starbucks or a tea ceremony, is what makes the kopi that you order unique. A kopi shop is called a kopitiam. Kopitiams are popular destinations for tourists visiting Singapore, as they retain a feeling of the old culture.
A brief history of kopi
A wave of immigrants from the west and Asia descended upon Singapore in the late 1800s, and the introduction of coffee and collision of tastes resulted in kopi culture. Robusta beans, which are stronger, more acidic, and higher in caffeine than the more common arabica beans, were easier to cultivate in the local environment. Kopi always begins with robusta beans. Expats and locals frequented kopitiams from the onset, making them more like local pubs than western coffee shops. In the 1920s kopitiams briefly became gambling dens, a trend that ended with the legalization of gambling.
Around this time kopitiams developed a specific style of menus, which resemble “breakfast” in the western sense of the term. The original kopi was brewed using a thick filter, sexily called a “sock.” This process, which is still used today, is somewhere between brewing filtered coffee and making tea. The special flannel kopi filter was developed over time for optimal results. Traditional kopi is very strong, thick, and sweet and served with condensed milk.
How kopi is made
The best English term for someone who makes kopi professionally is probably “chef.” Kopi chefs become popular for their bean roasting recipes, which are frequently kept secret. That being said, kopitiam chains are common in Singapore today and their processes are fairly well known.
First, a kopi chef roasts the robusta beans in a wok, and it’s worth noting that woks are much hotter than most standard kitchen equipment. The beans are roasted in butter, margarine, or lard, usually with sugar. This process caramelizes the beans without scorching them, giving them a delicious aroma.
Then the beans are ground, and this product is put into the flannel “sock,” which is placed into the serving vessel to allow the coffee to infuse, making a condensed brew. Although this filtering process sounds a bit mysterious, it’s analogous to what was once called “cowboy coffee,” although the results are much, much…better.
When serving a cup of kopi, the thick brew is added, followed by the appropriate amount of water (which can be ordered to taste), and then the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, or even ice. Kopi is also served black.
How to order (or serve) kopi
Here is a menu of kopi styles suitable whether you are ordering them or making them yourself. Don’t be shy about which style you like, as the special process makes any cup of kopi more delicious, or at least more special, than the coffee that we are accustomed to in the West.
- Kopi: The classic. Kopi with condensed milk
- Kopi O: Kopi with sugar
- Kopi C: Kopi with sugar and evaporated milk
- Kopi O Kosong: without sugar or condensed milk
- Kopi Peng: Iced Kopi
- Kopi Siew Dai: Kopi, less sweet
- Kopi Ga Dai: Kopi, very sweet
- Kopi Gao: Kopi thick (less water added on serving)
- Kopi Di Lo: Kopi extra thick (no water added on serving
- Kopi Poh: Coffee thin (more water added on serving)
Me, personally? I’m partial to Kopi O Kosong. Which one do you think you’d like? Only one way to find out: visit a Singaporean kopitiam or try making some yourself at home.