Jan 11 2011

How to order coffee like a Singaporean

Published by at 10:46 am under Food


Singapore is so westernised that it’s easy to forget you’re in Asia, but one local tradition that’s holding strong is the kopitiam. Found in every hawker centre, these local breakfast joints are more than just a place to satisfy your caffeine cravings.  Given that most Singaporeans live in crowded apartment blocks, kopitiams have become the country’s open-air living rooms. While the young may prefer to spend their free time at the mall, Singapore’s aunties and uncles (an endearing term for your elders) flock to their nearest kopitiam to read the newspaper, gossip over tea, and watch Chinese dramas on the communal television.

Why should you visit a kopitiam? Other than being a shot of local culture, kopitiams are great value with a cup costing as little as S$0.80. When it’s your turn to order you can forget what you’ve learned at Starbucks: kopitiams have a lingo all their own.

Ask for a kopi (kaw-pee) and you’ll get a rich, thick brew strained through something that resembles a sock.  By default, kopitiam-style coffee is served with lots of condensed milk and sugar.  If you like it black order a kopi-o or, if you want them to hold the sugar, ask for a kopi kosong. For coffee with unsweetened milk, ask for a kopi-C (the C is for Carnation milk, but they still add sugar to sweeten it). If the weather is too steamy for a hot drink, you can get a kopi peng (on ice). The same terms apply for teh (tea).  Fancy a hot black tea without sugar or milk?  That’s a teh-o kosong.

Think you’ve got the hang of it? Mix and match the terms to customise your drink.

Hot coffee with unsweetened milk and no sugar = kopi-C kosong

Hot tea with sugar but no milk = teh-o

Iced tea with unsweetened milk and no sugar =  teh-C peng kosong

Iced coffee with sugar but no milk = kopi-o peng

Hot coffee without milk or sugar = kopi-o kosong

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8 responses so far

8 Responses to “How to order coffee like a Singaporean”

  1. Kimon 14 Jan 2011 at 7:16 am

    How fun! I wish we we would have had these tips last month when we were there! I really loved the hot tea with milk. They LOVE that condensed milk in SE Asia. It’s crazy!

  2. Maryon 14 Jan 2011 at 7:04 am

    Nice post :) I’m Singaporean and I still get confused sometimes! x

  3. Daveeon 16 Jan 2011 at 9:10 pm

    “Diao heu” (meaning fishing in dialect) would mean you want a cup of Chinese tea (ps: because it comes in teabag and the action of it looks like fishing)

    “Tak Qoi” (meaning kick a ball in dialect) would mean you want Milo drink. (PS: Because last time Milo used to have a boy kicking a ball on its can)

    “Kopi siew dai” means less kopi with less milk, same goes for teh siew dai.

    “Kopi ka dai” means kopi with more milk, same goes for teh ka dai.

    There are quite a few more :)

  4. [...] 80 uniquely Singaporean expressions and their meanings. The phrases range from holiday greetings to coffee shop slang — – perfect if you’re not confident how to pronounce “kopi [...]

  5. [...] no such thing as kopi-frappuccino (hmm… business idea!), but if you want it on ice ask for a ‘kopi beng’. Kopi can be found at every hawker centre, foodcourt, and kopitiam and rarely costs more than [...]

  6. Ingridon 28 Jun 2012 at 10:32 am

    “For coffee with unsweetened milk, ask for a kopi-C (the C is for Carnation milk!).”

    The sentence above is potentially misleading…! Kopi-C means coffee with unsweetened milk (evaporated milk to be more exact) but they add sugar to make up the sweetness. If you want unsweetened kopi-C, you’ll need to go the extra word: kopi-C kosong!

  7. Tanya Procyshynon 28 Jun 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks Ingrid – I’ve updated it to be clearer :)

  8. Heatheron 02 Sep 2014 at 9:33 am

    Being a western expat I’m always too afraid to order anything because I’m not sure I have the pronunciation correct. For example Kopi is pronounced (kaw-pee) but how do you pronounce peng and kosong?
    Thanks for the post, very informative :)

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