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Delving into the Kopi Scene: Singapore and Malaysia

Step into the coffee shops of Singapore and Malaysia to experience the local heritage and hipster scene.

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Image by Allen Brewer.

You can’t visit Singapore or Malaysia without checking out the kopitiams or coffee shops. More than just places to grab quick refreshments, these joints are a ‘third place’ for many locals. They’re usually close to home, boast a welcoming communal vibe and are frequented by an army of familiar regulars. Folks congregate at kopitiams to watch televised sports, gossip and chat about current affairs; they are an integral part of society.

And it’s no wonder. Kopitiams have been around since the late 1800s, when enterprising Chinese immigrants to the region decided to cash in on the Western trend of drinking coffee. Without access to more conventional coffee making equipment, they developed unique methods of roasting and brewing coffee using the local bean varietals.

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In Singapore, kopi is made with Robusta beans, while Malaysian coffee is often made with a mix of Robusta and the lesser known Liberica beans. More affordable than Arabica beans, these varietals are hardy and less susceptible to pests and disease. In fact, Liberica trees were brought to Southeast Asia to replace the Arabica trees that had been killed off by coffee rust disease in the late nineteenth century.

In recent years, a new breed of hipster cafes have popped up all over Singapore and Malaysia.

Traditionally, Singaporean and Malaysian kopi is roasted with sugar – a 60:40 ratio of coffee to sugar – and a little butter for lubrication; though today, margarine is more commonly used. This gives the coffee a dark caramelised flavour. There are also regional styles like Ipoh ‘white coffee’ from Perak, Malaysia, where the coffee beans are roasted sans sugar, giving them a lighter colour.

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To brew kopi, the ground beans are put in a long sock, which acts as a filter. You can get Kopi C – creamy with evaporated milk (the ‘C’ stands for Carnation, a popular brand) – or black Kopi O, which is almost the colour of midnight. Another option is Kopi Tarik or pulled coffee, which is poured back and forth between two metal mugs to cool it a little before serving.

There’s perhaps no better place to see Singapore’s multiculturalism at work than at the local coffee shops.

In recent years, a new breed of hipster cafes have popped up all over Singapore and Malaysia. Third Wave Coffee made by tattooed baristas is now commonplace. But local kopitiam culture is so strong that even these indie haunts keep the kopitiam aesthetic.

Set in repurposed shophouses, retaining their old school Chinese signage and décor features, these spots celebrate traditional drinks and snacks. Instead of biscotti, your coffee might come with gem biscuits – the pastel-coloured treats that are now seen as a symbol of retro-cool. It’s a great blend of local heritage and international coffee habits. There’s perhaps no better place to see Singapore’s multiculturalism at work than at the local coffee shops.

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Kopitiams

Your best bet is to head to a local neighbourhood spot. But failing that, these chains are solid, consistent and easily accessible.

Killiney Kopitiam www.killiney-kopitiam.com.

Old Town White Coffee www.oldtown.com.my.

Ya Kun Kaya Toast www.yakun.com.sg.

Retro Cafes

Dong Po Colonial Café 56 Kandahar St., Singapore, +65 6298-1318, www.facebook.com/DongPoColonialCafe.

China House 153 Lebuh Pantai, Georgetown, Penang, Malaysia, +60 4263-7299, www.chinahouse.com.my.

LOKL 30 Jalan Tun H.S. Lee, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, +60 3 2072-1188, loklcoffee.com.

Sinpopo Brand 458 Joo Chiat Rd., Singapore, +65 6345-5034, www.facebook.com/sinpoposg.

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Image by Fryza Puspanegara.