A local tradition.
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, old-style cafes and 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
Tanya Procyshyn is a freelance writer and photographer. With a passion for unusual destinations, she has camped alongside Komodo dragons and shook hands with soldiers in North Korea.
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