Sep 282012

Kopi is coffee in Bahasa Melayu, but more than that, it is coffee to the average Singaporean. I promised to describe it in the Coffee Shop Culture post – so here it is.

I’m a bit fussy when it comes to coffee – it has to be rich, fully flavored, not over-extracted. For espresso this means good beans, freshly roasted, freshly ground, and prepared with a decent machine by someone with a little experience. Stringy, burnt, or weak espresso is awful stuff – and a waste of time for both barista and customer alike.

Kopi, on the other hand, is made by adding hot water to ground coffee then agitating it in some way, either through stirring or pouring it from jug to jug. It’s then strained through cloth (sometimes a sock!) and poured into glasses/cups. The mouth feel is gritty, and if done well, rich and full-flavoured. To be honest, there are more places in Singapore that can make a decent kopi than there are that can make a drinkable espresso – my preference has grown more to drinking the local brew in the time I have been here.

Additives determine the name. Here are some common variants:

  • Kopi Kosong: black kopi with nothing added
  • Kopi O: black kopi with sugar added
  • Kopi C/Kopi Si: white kopi with sweetened condensed milk added – sometimes seen as Kopi Putih (white coffee)

Some authorities recognise as many as eight different variants of kopi – it can have unsweetened evaporated milk as well as the sweetened condensed variety – but most coffee shop beverage vendors seem to supply the three above at least. Teah/Teh (Tea) is also available in a similar array of choices, as well as the popular Teh Tarik (“pulled tea” – tea with some form of milk added, poured from cup to cup until imbued with a cappuccino-like froth).

My favourites? The Toast Box franchise places seem to have it worked out – the brew from the Marina Bay Link Mall outlet was a welcome sight in the afternoons of long working days. Block 107 Tampines St 11 coffee shop does a decent one, as does the Tastebud coffee shop in Queen St Bugis.

Many Westerners, on trying kopi for the first time, are surprised at the gritty texture. To be honest, if you are used to Starbucks and/or instant coffee out of the jar then it can be a little confronting. I come from years of drinking Turkish/Greek coffee and my own stove-top “cowboy coffee” brew so I was used to the grittiness from day one – but I grant your mileage may vary. If you like coffee that tastes and smells like real coffee beans, my humble suggestion is that you try it.

  3 Responses to “On Kopi”

  1. This is fascinating! I love to know how different cultures do things. Coffee and tea are popular world-wide, but how they prepare and serve it is different. I love coffee and would love to try Kopi someday!

    • Hi Michele,
      thank you for your comment :) I find it fascinating too. Kopi is not universally popular here, but it is the most popular form of coffee. The Starbucks at my local mall is still full pretty much every day and every evening, but so are the half-dozen places nearby that make a decent kopi. As an aside, I still get odd looks from some of the local staff, and a confirming “you want black coffee with sugar?” when I ask for kopi o – I guess they’re shocked that a foreigner is trying it :)
      And I am sure you would find a hundred things to like here!
      Best regards, Andrew

      • Kopi is fairly universal over here (Penang, Malaysia) too. You can get it almost everywhere, but my current favourites (in Batu Ferringhi) are the new Indian catering stand next to Golden River on Jalan Sungai Emas and the Chinese coffee stand next to Lee’s Minimart on Jalan Batu Ferringhi.

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