Feature Articles

Kopi Or Coffee?

By: joyceho on 15 Jun 2012
Before there was Cappuccino, there was kopi - an age-long coffee tradition involving brewing coffee through a steep metal pot with a cotton “sock” filter. The local kopi is notorious for its sweetness. The water-filtered coffee is then mixed with condensed and evaporated milk and sugar. While the younger crowds have begun to swoon over the latest - not to mention overpriced - cafes, the old-timers still swear by the good-old affordable cup of kopi. Whichever the case may be, in the wise words of my mama: “There is no harm done when it comes to trying something new. Love it or hate, at least you'll know what your preference is!”

Cappucci-NO, it’s Kopi-O!

Local kopi are typically made from Robusta beans. Robusta beans are known for their higher caffeine content and as their name suggests, a robust flavour. These beans are grown at lower altitudes with an ability to thrive in comparatively harsher climate conditions, hence the ability to grow more abundantly, making them much more affordable. Maize, sugar and margarine are then added and roasted together before the concoction is pre-ground in big tins. Conversely, cafes generally use Arabica beans, which have a lower yield but reign superior in terms of flavour and aroma, thus lending itself to the associated exorbitant prices.

A typical kopi also uses three teaspoons of condensed milk and a bit of evaporated milk, as opposed to the fresh milk typically used in cappuccinos and lattes.

Coffee shops and hawker centres might also come as a shock to foreigners. This is no place for quiet contemplation.


Just as coffees in the European cafe have a variety of names, so does kopi at the coffee shops. The lingo has been adopted and acquired through the ages, which includes a smattering of several languages conjoined together. Here’s a quick guide:

Kopi – As aforementioned, kopi is the very basic black coffee accompanied with sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk and sugar. This is usually remains unstirred so that customers can adjust the taste of their coffee to their desired sweetness.

Kopi-O – The equivalent of a black coffee, kopi-O is served with sugar without any sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk.

Kopi Kosong – Kosong is a Malay word for ‘empty’. Simialr the kopi-O, kopi kosong is a variation enjoyed particularly for hardcore coffee drinkers which consist of black coffee without milk or sugar.
Kopi-C – A less sweet variation of the original kopi, kopi-C consists of evaporated milk and sugar, and no condensed milk.

Kopi Peng – If Singapore’s weather is getting in your way of grabbing a good coffee, this iced coffee is a good choice for you. Peng is the Chinese word for ice, an easy way to remember this is to remember the sound of ice-cubes make when they being hit against each other.

Kopi Gao – Gao is the Chinese word for thick. Kopi gao consist of an extra shot being served with the regular dosage of kopi topped up with condensed milk.

Kopi Siu Dai – If you enjoy kopi but can’t get pass the intense sweetness, ordering a kopi siu dai would decrease the amount of condensed milk the vendor would usually use.

Kopi C Siu Dai – To take the sugar down a further notch, ordering a kopi-C siu dai would do the trick. Like kopi-C, it does away with the condensed milk and also decreases the amount of evaporated milk and sugar.

Kopi Gah Dai - Unless you have an extremely sweet tooth, kopi gah dai is one you do not want to reckon with.  This concoction consists of kopi served with extra sweetened milk would give you a more a sugar high than an actual caffeine high to perk up your day.

(It also should be noted that you can order tea the same way. Teh is Singapore’s version of local tea and is made in a similar way to Kopi except that it uses ceylonese tea leaves. Simply replace the word ‘kopi’ with ‘teh’ and the variations will be in order.)

Plastic Bag

While some coffee vendors have plastic or Styrofoam cups on hand to enable customers to have their drinks to go, a vast majority still use plastic bag held together with two plastic bands at the top. This makes it convenient for coffee drinkers to carry and sip their beverage through a straw while on the move. These plastic bags are useful for hooking onto door nobs and other nifty corners. Alternatively, a mug can be used as a placeholder as the bag moulds its way through the framework of the mug.

Coffee Steals

While kopi vendors can be found all over the island, kopi culture has become such an art over the years that kopi-enthusiasts would swear by certain vendors. Modern franchises have also been on the rise, boasting of their longstanding secret kopi recipes and traditional kaya toast and half-boil eggs to complete your meal.

Kampong Glam Cafe
Tucked in the Malay-Muslim ethnic quarters, Kampong Glam Cafe is as old-school as it gets, serving kopi alongside some signature favorites of Malay fare.

Killiney Kopitiam
The shop’s signature coffee is prepared by blending Columbian Arabica coffee beans, directly imported from Columbia, with Robusta coffee beans from Indonesia, roasted to perfection in old-school Hainanese style – not too sweet, not too bitter.

Ya Kun Kaya Toast
One of Singapore’s few kopi-heroes, Ya Kun has been a family trade since 1944. Now a leading franchise, the coffee-brewing style has remained the same after all these years. Besides its kopi, served hot or cold, other must-tries include the shop’s famous kaya toast.

No thanks, I’ll Stick to My Cappuccino

If kopi is not doing anything for your palette but you still need your morning jolt to kick-start your day there are plently of European and American cafes around the city. Finding a really good coffee place however may require you to look a little deeper. Here’s just some of good finds but remember, you didn’t hear it from us.

Papa Palheta Tucked at the end of Bukit Timah Road, this carefully hidden cafe is fuelled by one of the most passionate coffee drinkers.  Their pay-what-you-think-its-worth policy shows how confident these baristas are of their stuff.

Espressoul Self-proclaimed Coffee with a Touch of Soul, the good people from Espressoul is located at both the EFG Bank Building along City Hall and another in Citi Singapore Campus located next to Expo MRT Station.

Jones the Grocer Hailing down from down under is gourmet food stores Jones the Grocer. Interestingly enough, both outlets include a cafe tucked within the retail shop and proves to be a popular favourite among the expatriate crowds in both Dempsey Hill and Mandarin Gallery.

Black Coffee Before you judge its taste by its title, Black Coffee is certainly worth a shot. (Pun intended.) Priding itself in making quality artisanal coffee and only being slightly pretentious when it comes to the decor, the place boasts of whipping up some good coffee.

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