For many people, the perfect start to a perfect day is by drinking a perfect cup of coffee—or, as how we call it in Singapore, kopi.
Also known as Nanyang coffee, kopi is a traditional beverage known for its high caffeine concentration. It’s commonly found in Maritime Southeast Asian nations, but it’s especially significant in Singapore: it’s literally part of the everyday diet of many citizens.
Personally, I’m not much of a coffee person, but kopi has so many variations, so I can find one that I actually like. If you’re curious to know more about this drink, here’s an article I wrote detailing everything you need to know about Singaporean kopi.
The History of Kopi
It’s tricky to determine the exact roots of kopi, but the most common belief is that it originated during the British Malaya period. Arab traders introduced this drink to residents at the time, and eventually, multiple cultures integrated it into their lifestyles.
You can see the various cultural influences on this beverage in many ways.
On the one hand, “kopi” is the Malay term for coffee, and on the other hand, its other name—“Nanyang” coffee—is Mandarin for “South Sea,” referring to Maritime Southeast Asia.
The strongest influence has to be Hokkien. Much of kopi culture vocabulary is actually derived from this dialect, including the names for the kopi variations available today.
The reason for the prevalence of the Hokkien dialect in kopi culture is the surge of Chinese immigrants (from the Minnan region) in Southeast Asia during the 19th century. This surge eventually resulted in the dialect being one of the most spoken in the region.
The History of Kopitiam Culture in Singapore
Though I’ve already discussed the general strokes of kopi’s history, I’d like to have a separate section for the rise of kopitiam culture in Singapore. This topic’s always been fascinating because it’s connected to the country’s demographic and cultural history.
It started when the Hainanese immigrated to Singapore. Since they arrived way after other groups, such as the Hokkien, Teochew, and Cantonese, they were at a major disadvantage in terms of employment.
At first, the Hainanese took up jobs in the service industry, especially as cooks, waiters, and domestic servants. Eventually, they got the idea to rely on their acquired culinary and personal service skills and set up their own kopitiams—or coffee shops.
These Hainanese kopitiams had their own distinctive techniques of roasting and brewing coffee, and that’s how the different variations of kopi came to be in Singapore.
Kopitiams suffered during the 1940s due to the war, but they eventually came back after that. Since 1988, there’s been a trend of buying kopitiams, which results in a thriving kopitiam culture in the country.
The Significance of Kopi in Singapore
To say that kopi is a significant part of the day-to-day lives of Singaporeans is quite an understatement. Statistics will show just how much everyone—citizens, permanent residents, and foreigners alike—loves kopi here.
Right now, there are now 2,200 coffee shops in Singapore, and a good chunk of them are in HDB estates, malls, and hawker centers. It’s also reported that kopi takes up about 70% of the coffee consumed in the 21st century.
People from all walks of life in Singapore enjoy drinking at least one cup. In fact, I know a few people who can even consume six cups and more every day!
Though buying from kopitiams is the way to go, the demand for instant kopi is continually rising due. In fact, according to Statista, the demand is rising by about 3.1% each year.
The main reason for this is the fast-paced lifestyle in the country: many of us don’t have the time and resources to brew our own coffee or go to a shop, so we have to resort to instant kopi instead.
That said, instant kopi has its drawbacks, and the primary one is that it comes with high amounts of sugar. Because of this, some Singaporeans choose to use coffee pods instead of instant because pods let them control how sweet their drink is.
Despite the disadvantages of instant kopi, it still remains one of the ways people consume kopi in Singapore. To meet the demand, many national brands, such as Toast Box and Old Town, have begun producing their own instant kopi products.
The Nanyang Old Coffee and Museum
Are you still not convinced of how much Singaporeans love kopi? Then, the fact that the country has a museum dedicated to kopi might finally dispel your doubts!
Located in a Chinatown neighborhood, the Nanyang Old Coffee and Museum is dedicated to showcasing the rich history of kopi in Singapore. You can trace how roasting methods came to be by browsing the photographs and vintage items here.
Though I love looking at the various artifacts in the museum, my favorite part has to be their shop where I can buy kopi—and yes, different variations are available—and other traditional snacks, such as kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, and nasi lemak.
There’s just something about drinking traditional kopi while you’re surrounded by an old-school interior. It just makes you feel like you’re being transported to a different time, and that makes the experience more memorable—at least for me.
- Address: 268 South Bridge Road, Singapore 058817
- Operating Hours: 7 am to 6:30 pm (daily)
- Estimated Cost: S$2.10–2.80 (for drinks), S$1.80–9.90 (for snacks)
How to Make Kopi
What beans are used for kopi?
Robusta beans are traditionally used for kopi. During Colonial Singapore, Indonesian Robusta beans were the preference because these were what the Chinese got from Arab traders.
These days, Singaporean kopi still uses Indonesian Robusta beans, especially the Indonesia EK-1 species. Aside from Indonesia, Singapore also gets imported beans from Vietnam.
Meanwhile, some heritage brands will choose to get special gourmet beans from South Africa and Central America in hopes of modernizing and standing out from the local competition.
How is kopi made?
Kopi is traditionally made by roasting beans with sugar and butter/margarine. To be more specific, the ratio should be 80% beans and 20% sugar and butter/margarine, and the roasting should be done for 25 minutes at 180°C.
When you’re halfway through the roasting time, you add salt.
You also add sugar once it’s finished so as to provide a caramelized finish. The sugar will also help take away any bitter aftertaste.
Once the roasting process is over, you grind the beans into a powder, place the powder in some sort of strainer (usually a muslin or flannel sock filter), and pour boiling water over it. Stir the mixture with a long stick until the water has passed through.
After, you have to pour the brew back and forth between two large cylindrical kettles with upright tubular spouts and a tapered pouring end. This is to help aerate the kopi and also cool it down enough for drinking.
The whole process of making kopi is said to have some similarities with the Torrefacto roasting method that’s popular in Western countries, such as France, Spain, Portugal, Argentina, and Costa Rica.
Kopi’s roasting process also makes for a brew that’s richer and more fragrant than Western-style coffee.
What are the different variations of kopi?
Currently, there are several variations of kopi in Singapore, and they all differ in terms of denseness, sugar level, and additions of evaporated milk and condensed milk.
Here’s a table of 21 kopi variations that you can order from any kopitiam:
|Kopi (regular)||Coffee with sugar and condensed milk|
|Kopi-O||Coffee with sugar|
|Kopi-O-Kosong||Coffee without sugar and evaporated milk|
|Kopi-C||Coffee with sugar and evaporated milk|
|Kopi-C-Kosong||Coffee with evaporated milk and no sugar|
|Kopi-C-Gah-Dai||Coffee with evaporated milk and extra sugar|
|Kopi-C-Siew-Dai||Coffee with evaporated milk and less sugar|
|Kopi-Gu-You||Coffee with condensed milk and a slice of butter (yes, butter!)|
|Kopi-O-Po||Coffee with sugar but weaker (more water is added)|
|Kopi-O-Siew-Dai||Coffee with less sugar|
|Kopi-Kosong-Peng||Iced coffee without sugar or milk|
|Kopi-Peng||Iced coffee with sugar and condensed milk|
|Kopi-Siew-Dai||Coffee with less sugar and condensed milk|
|Kopi-Ga-Dai||Coffee with extra sugar and condensed milk|
|Kopi-Gao||Strong, black coffee with condensed milk|
|Kopi-O-Gao||Strong, black coffee with sugar|
|Kopi-Di-Lo||Coffee with no dilution|
|Kopi-Poh||Coffee with extra dilution|
|Yuanyuang||Coffee mixed with tea and condensed milk|
|Kopu-Pok||Black coffee with condensed milk, but with less coffee powder and more water|
|Kopi-Tarik||Pulled black coffee with condensed milk (sweet coffee with a frothy top)|
If you were to ask me what my favorite kopi of them all is, I’d probably say it’s Kopi-Peng. I’ve always been a fan of iced sweet coffee.
On the rare occasions that I’m craving hot kopi, I’ll most likely pick the regular kopi.
When you’re ordering at a kopitiam, you can simply say the suffix (the phrase after kopi). Additionally, if you want to order another cup of kopi, you only have to say “kopi sua,” and if you want takeaway kopi, just say “kopi ta bao.”
What foods are great to eat with kopi?
Since kopi is typically consumed during the day, breakfast items are the ideal foods to pair it with. Toast with kaya (sweet coconut jam) and soft-boiled eggs are the most popular options.
Personally, I like to eat pastries and cookies—especially coffee cake, croissants, biscotti, and donuts—with my kopi because I have a massive sweet tooth. Sometimes, I also pair kopi with cheese if I’m feeling adventurous.
Is kopi healthy?
The question of whether kopi is healthy is difficult to answer because it can go both ways. On the one hand, kopi definitely has some health benefits: caffeine improves mood, energy levels, and memory, and it can also help with weight loss.
But on the other hand, kopi can also be detrimental to your health, especially when you consume too much of it. Specifically, the levels of caffeine and a higher risk of diabetes are the two primary health issues associated with kopi.
High Level of Caffeine
I know I already mentioned that caffeine has its perks, but unfortunately, it also has its downsides. A few side effects are relatively benign, such as headaches and dizziness, but others can be a big problem, such as anxiety, dehydration, and dependency.
Most of the time, these side effects only happen when you consume too much caffeine, and in case you didn’t know, kopi actually has twice the amount of caffeine than your typical coffee made of Arabica beans.
In other words, it’s very easy to consume a lot of caffeine when drinking kopi, especially if you’re not being careful. So, if you enjoy drinking kopi, I suggest being mindful of the amount you consume.
Higher Risk of Diabetes
Aside from the caffeine levels, kopi also contains a lot of sugar. Some variations even have both sugar and condensed milk, thus doubling the sweetness!
Because of this, kopi does up your risk for diabetes, especially if you always order a cup with sugar and/or condensed milk.
The best way to avoid this problem is to order your kopi with less sugar. You can even go with no sugar if you’re okay with it.
Luckily, there are many kopi variations that specify less or no sugar, so you can still enjoy your beverage without worrying too much about your health.
Where can I buy the best kopi in Singapore?
Buying kopi is a piece of cake because there are hundreds of kopitiams and kopi stalls all over the country. If you’re looking for suggestions, here are some of the best coffee shops in Singapore:
Heap Seng Leong
- Address: 10 North Bridge Road, #01-5109, Singapore 190010
- Operating Hours: 5 am to 4 pm (daily)
- Estimated Cost: S$4.20 for a set that includes kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, and kopi
Heap Seng Long is easily overlooked, especially since it’s near the famous Michelin-starred Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodles, but this is a favorite spot for a select few—me included.
The thing about this kopitiam is that its interior feels so nostalgic. Even though I wasn’t born in the 1970s, I still feel like I’m transported to that time period whenever I visit here.
Its breakfast set is my go-to order because I usually come here during the early morning, and its kaya toast, soft-boiled eggs, and a cup of kopi are enough to get me through the day.
But if I were to pick a highlight for this shop, it has to be their Kopi-Gu-You, also known as butter coffee. Before living in Singapore, it never occurred to me to add butter to coffee, but I’ve now discovered that the combo actually works!
So, if you’re ever wondering which kopi to try, I suggest giving Kopi-Gu-You a taste. You might be surprised to realize just how rich this drink actually is!
Tong Ah Eating House
- Address: 35 Keong Saik Road, Singapore 089142
- Operating Hours: 7 am to 10 pm (Thursdays to Tuesdays), 7 am to 2 pm (Wednesdays)
- Estimated Cost: S$2.60–6.70
Speaking of old-school kopitiams with a lot of charm, Tong Ah Eating House is another destination worth going to. This coffee shop has been around since 1939, and it offers all the indulgent breakfast items that you love.
Kaya toast is the bestselling dish here, which is understandable because it’s so delicious. It’s toasted three times, so it’s really crispy when you bite into it, and when you pair it with a cup of kopi, it’s really satisfying.
If you don’t like crispy toast, don’t worry because they also have soft bread. I like to spread a bit of kaya onto this cloud bread and bite into it, savoring its fluffiness.
YY Kafei Dian
- Address: 37 Beach Road, #01-01, Singapore 189678
- Operating Hours: 7:30 am to 6:30 pm (weekdays), 8 am to 6:30 pm (weekends)
- Estimated Cost: S$1.50–6
If you’re planning to go shopping on Bugis Street, then you better make sure to stop by YY Kafei Dan for your snack break. The star of the show here is the Kaya Bun, which is the perfect combination of crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
Whenever I come here, I always get the Kaya Bun, then slather a generous amount of butter while it’s still hot. I eat it immediately to enjoy the warmth, but sometimes, I also enjoy dunking it into my hot kopi.
When the weather is hot, I typically go for the Kopi-Peng because I need a beverage that will cool me down. I’m not the most reliable coffee critic, but I really do like the Kopi-Peng here because it doesn’t have too much acidity, making it easy to drink.
Ah Seng Hai Nam Coffee
- Address: 7 Maxwell Road, #02-95 Amoy Street Food Center, Singapore 069111
- Operating Hours: 5:30 am to 3 pm (Saturdays to Wednesdays), closed on Thursdays and Fridays
- Estimated Cost: S$1.40–3.50
Located inside Amoy Street Food Center, Ah Seng Hai Nam Coffee is a hawker stall that you definitely don’t want to miss out on. This family-operated shop serves tasty and hearty toasts and cups of kopi at an affordable price.
The best part of it all is that the kopi actually tastes great—probably one of the best I’ve ever tasted. Many of the kopi variations I’ve tasted tend to be flat—only made better by the sugar—but the one at this stall is actually more layered.
I can just tell that the store owners really put their passion for kopi into their servings. That’s why I’ll always recommend this to anyone who’s willing to listen.
Seng Hong Coffeeshop
- Address: 58 Lengkok Bahru, #01-521, Singapore 150058
- Operating Hours: 6 am to 5 pm (weekdays), 6 am to 4:30 pm (Saturdays), closed on Sundays
- Estimated Cost: S$2.60–5.20
Nestled amongst a block of flats in Bukit Merah, Seng Hong Coffeeshop is solace in a busy world. The traditional kopi instantly warms your soul, and when you bite into he soft-steamed white bread, you’ll instantly feel like home.
My favorite tip to give to people is that they ask the shop’s chef for a soft-steamed bun with otah. Otah is a spicy grilled fishcake, and it actually makes for a unique combination with the bun, so be sure to try it out!
The kopi is also worth noting. I’m still amazed at the fact that they actually still use an ancient pot from 70 years ago!
I’m not sure if the pot is their secret weapon, but the kopi is always so thick, fragrant, and creamy, and I can never get enough of it. And that’s saying a lot because I’ve always said that I’m not the biggest fan of anything related to coffee.
The 1950s Coffee
- Address: 335 Smith Street, #02-048 Chinatown Complex Food Center, Singapore 050335
- Operating Hours: 7 am to 5 pm (Tuesdays to Sundays), closed on Mondays
- Estimated Cost: S$1.20–1.80
If you only wanted to try out one kopitiam or hawker stall in this list, let it be The 1950s Coffee.
I mean, this stall in Chinatown Complex Food Center was recommended by the Michelin Guide itself. How can you turn your back on this?
The kopi served here is rich and thick, and I’ve always found the sweetness level to be spot on!
My personal favorite has to be the iced kopi. It has the perfect ice-to-coffee ratio, and it features some caramel-like notes that I absolutely love.
Since this stall is quite well-known to both locals and tourists alike, long queues—no matter what time of day—are to be expected. So, if you really want to try out the kopi here, be prepared to wait for some time.
- Address: 7 Maxwell Road, #02-78 Amoy Street Food Center, Singapore 06911
- Operating Hours: 7:30 am to 2:30 pm (Mondays to Thursdays), closed on Fridays to Sundays
- Estimated Cost: S$1.60–3
Another one of my favorite kopi stalls is Coffee Break, which is located at Amoy Street Food Center. The main reason why I love this place is that it actually puts a modern twist on the traditional kopi drink.
The first time I came here, I was overwhelmed with all the choices because many of the drinks on the menu had names unfamiliar to me. But once I’ve tried a few, I realize that this is a place that I’d love to come back to time and again.
The stall’s signature drink is the Black Sesame Iced Kopi, and it’s also my favorite drink from them. Even though I like the sweetness of the typical iced kopi, the Black Sesame one has earthy flavor notes, thanks to the nuttiness of the black sesame.
The earthy flavor mixes well with the sweetness, and that’s why I enjoy slurping this drink. Surprisingly, the traditional kopi drinks are just okay, so I recommend only trying out the modern renditions.