Around here, there are coffee shops like Starbucks and Gloria Jeans. And then there are the real coffee shops – neighborhood food and meeting places, where you can get anything from half a roast duck to a bowl of prawn noodles or even steamed fish head, and wash it down with beer. People eat in family groups, watch soap operas or sport on TV, and talk about the issues of the day. I’ve spent many a Saturday afternoon in these places, solving the problems of the world with a friend over a Tiger beer or two and some chicken wings or chicken rice.
The Singaporean coffee shop, or kopitiam, is similar to the kedai kopi that you will find in neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. It usually consists of two or more food vendors and a beverage shop arrayed around a set of plastic/wooden tables. While coffee shops vary, at a minimum there is usually someone selling roast meats (traditional Chinese BBQ/roast pork/chicken as well as snack foods like chicken wings), a noodle/noodle soup vendor, a dessert place, and a beverage vendor. The beverages range from local kopi (coffee) and tea to lime/mango juice and beer. Kopi is a bit different to Western coffee (and I will cover that in a separate post – but for now think of it more like Greek/Turkish coffee with extra hot water added than something you’d find at Starbucks).
There is a chain of Kopi Tiam coffee shops, sometimes air conditioned, but the average neighborhood coffee shop is open to the fresh air. There is a grey area between the larger coffee shops (with a dozen vendors or more) and the hawker centres (which can have as little as twenty vendors here but some have over a hundred).
A lot of coffee shops are located on the ground floor of Housing Development Board (HDB) apartment buildings. It is said that 80% of Singaporeans live this way – closer to 100% in my current neighborhood – and the coffee shop provides a place to dine, catch up with friends and relatives, and relax. To me, coffee shop culture is part of the real Singapore – something that all the tourists in the world can never dilute entirely. There are a thousand unique dining experiences here, but the coffee shop is every day reality.
What is the food like? Some coffee shops sell the best food around – most, though, sell average food – good enough for every day, but not the best of the best. Some will surprise you with just how good they are – the roast chicken shop at Tastebud in Bugis sells the best BBQ wings I have eaten here, and one of my local HDB noodle shops has close to the best Prawn Mee on the island (and they are cheap, too). But sometimes, the noodle soup broth is more like dirty water than anything resembling stock, and the steamed Pau buns taste a lot like the machine-made ones from the supermarket. Shop around, ask around, and explore. The quality of food seems to be higher and the prices lower if you steer clear of shopping malls and stick to the HDB places. Speaking of quality – all food vendors in Singapore are assessed for hygiene and are rated A (highest1) to C (lowest) – I have had food poisoning properly only once here in over 12 months, so I am a big fan of the system – it works! Look for the A/B/C before ordering and you should be fine.
For comparison: Coffee Shop in Penang, Malaysia
The ordering/delivery options can be confusing for the newcomer, so it is always good to take your table number with you (if there is one on the table) and check with the food stall owner if they will bring the food to you or if you should wait. Some places have self service signs but bring you the food anyway. Beverages (especially beer) are usually looked after by a waitress in a beer company uniform who comes to the tables – a little old fashioned perhaps but it seems to be the way here.
Be aware also that English is one of four official languages in Singapore – the others are Bahasa Melayu/Malay, Mandarin and Tamil – and in the more “local” areas you could be talking with someone who speaks mainly Cantonese, Vietnamese, or Tagalog. Patience is your friend – a combination of pointing at menu signboards and holding up the right number of fingers for quantities will nearly always work (that said, I would not expect a universal understanding of western concepts such as low-salt, Vegan, certified organic or allergen free without some frustration on both sides). My advice is that if you have special dietary requirements (apart from Halal, which seems to be understood and well signposted where supported) you may need to learn some Malay and Chinese Simplified to effectively communicate your needs before venturing off the tourist trail. This is not to say that there is not a stunning array of vegetarian cuisines here – there is – but I’d hesitate to guarantee that (as an example) the vegetarian offerings in a local coffee shop were completely free of all animal products without asking the vendor in a way that they can understand.
Be sure to take a small packet of tissues with you – these serve to reserve a table (important if it is busy, and vital if you are going to step into a larger busier hawker centre such as Lau Par Sat on a weekday lunchtime) and also help out as serviettes (not supplied universally).
If you are prepared to meet Singapore half way, there are a lot of experiences that you can enjoy here – and one of them is the coffee shop culture. I hope that you get to enjoy it yourself.