What a “fika” looks like in Singapore

January 23, 2021
Like Sweden, there is a distinct coffee culture in the Southeast Asian region that begets a daily ritual in Singapore and Malaysia known as “kopitiam”. The word “kopi” is an Indonesian and Malay word for coffee. “Tiam” is the word for shop in Hokkien or Hakka Chinese dialect. The coffee is usually drunk at “kopitiam” or “kopi tiam” places with something to eat, just like a Swedish fika.
Mee rebus and iced “Kopi". 
Source: Author's photo
A lot of cultures around the world have their version of fika, imbued with their distinct regional differences. In Singapore, the daily ritual of drinking coffee with something sweet or savory either in the morning or the afternoon is a favorite pastime of many residents. Once a British colony, Singapore has roots in its British influence when it comes to governance, culture, and consumption habits of coffee and tea. Typical menu offerings at a regular kopitiam spot include simple toast with either sweet or savory toppings like kaya jam (a sweet coconut jam commonly found in Singapore) or pork floss, a bowl of poached eggs, chicken curry, or even a bowl of curried noodles. At first glance, one might confuse it with a full meal! One of the national pastimes of Singapore is eating, so you can find food between meal times at some of these kopitiam places to have a snack or even a full meal if you desire.

Indian "kopitiam" spread of murtabak (stuffed pancake bread with savory items like egg and onion), curry dipping sauce, soup, and biryani rice.
Source: Author's photo
There are old school kopitiam places that are found in public food courts around government-built housing estates. These food courts are known as hawker centers and are comprised of several stalls selling different kinds of foods. A typical stall would specialise in the type of food offered with typically 1-5 different menu offerings. About 80% of Singapore residents live in government-built housing estates, and part of the urban planning scheme is to have affordable food courts and local shops for residents within a short walking distance. Most of these hawker centers consist of a coffee and drink stall, a Chinese food stall, an Indian food stall, a “Western” food stall, and a halal Malay food stall to celebrate the cultural diversity and variety of flavors that Singaporean cuisine is known for—a microcosm of the racial diversity among the population.
Chocolate flavored Kaya jam
Source: Author's photo
In a typical kopitiam, the drinks stall would sell coffee, tea, and soft drinks in addition to typical food offerings of kaya toast, soft poached eggs, and snacks. Kaya is a coconut jam that is made with coconut milk, pandan leaves, egg yolks, and sugar. With its caramel flavor and hints of pandan it is spread on a thick toast with butter. Paired with a hot cup of coffee, this simple meal is perfect for breakfast or a snack in between meals. Another typical choice is to have a bowl of two softly poached eggs served with a bit of soy sauce and a cup of coffee. Most kopi tiam shops have long opening hours so you can always order a cup of coffee or tea with something to eat.

A popular chain with humble beginnings, Killiney Kopitiam, is found everywhere in shopping malls, office buildings, independent shophouses, Changi airport, and of course,at their original 1919 flagship location at 67 Killiney Road. This coffee shop still serves their signature kaya toast with coffee and tea the same way it has always been done. Today, their menu offerings have expanded to noodles, pork chops, fish and chips, chicken cutlets, and various other savory dishes that one would consider a full meal instead of just a kopitiam

Killiney Kopitiam
Source: Author's photo
There are quite a number of local chains that have reinvented and popularised the kopitiam experience to modern society with a nod to the past. Some of the popular chains include Toast Box, with its white interiors and efficient ordering system that is reminiscent of Starbucks. Toast Box prides itself in delivering a traditional type of coffee called Nanyang coffee, which has Hainanese immigrant roots. The roasting process and the way it is served is what sets it apart from just a regular cup of coffee. A regular kopi in Singapore is usually served with sugar and a bit of milk. Nanyang coffee is a unique way of preparing the beans from the roasting process. Butter and sugar is added to the roasting beans which adds a caramelized flavor and robust aroma. It is stronger than a regular espresso therefore the addition of condensed milk softens the harsh taste. You can read more about the whole process on Brew Ratio

In modern Singapore, residents enjoy a wide variety of coffee shops to choose from that range from American imports such as Starbucks and Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf as well as local chains such as Ya Kun, Nanyang old coffee, Toast Box, and Killiney kopitiam. With a rising interest in coffee roasters and a younger generation of Singaporeans returning from overseas stints and a large expat population, specialty coffee places have been cropping up all over the island. Common Man Coffee Roasters, Craftsmen Coffee, Jewel Coffee, Toby’s Estate, Forty Hands, Oriole Coffee, and so many more independent specialty coffee roasters opening up every year. The coffee and cafe culture is increasing in this tiny island country that one could go visit a new cafe for a fika each day of the year. There is even a Swedish Fika cafe & bistro for those that want a kladdkaka with regular black coffee. 
"Iced Milo dinosaur" - a cold iced cocoa malt drink with added chocolate malt added on the top. A popular drink at kopitiam places especially with children and teenagers. 
Source: Author's photo
Having a kopi can be an interesting experience in Singapore, as the vernacular to order a simple coffee can differentiate the local from the visitor. Most of the Chinese population in Singapore are descendents from Southern Fujian region in China and speak Hokkien dialect as opposed to regular Mandarin. Usually it's blended with Mandarin, Malay, and English. Interestingly, the local Hokkien mixed with Malay vernacular has been adopted to the way a person orders their specific coffee preferences regardless of the person’s origins. Locals would dub this vernacular as Singlish, a blended language of English with Hokkien, Malay, and sometimes Tamil words thrown in for extra flair. The common black coffee preferred throughout Europe and Sweden can become a complicated affair when ordering a coffee in Singapore! It is best to look through this list and memorise the exact phrase to say when ordering your choice of coffee. Otherwise, you can just describe in simple plain English your coffee preference.
Black coffee with condensed milk and sugar
Kopi peng
Iced black coffee with condensed milk. The word “peng” means “iced” so you can add it at the end to order a coffee to mean you want it with ice. (Singapore is a tropical island right by the equator so iced drinks can give you a refreshing respite from the heat)
Kopi O
Black coffee with sugar
Kopi C
Black coffee with evaporated milk and sugar
Kopi kosong
Black coffee without milk or sugar. This is the black coffee that is equivalent to bryggt kaffe or Americano that most Europeans and Swedes are used to
Kopi kosong peng
Iced black coffee without milk or sugar
Kopi siew dai
Black coffee with condensed milk and less sugar
Kopi O siew dai
Black coffee with less sugar
Kopi gah dai
Black coffee with extra condensed milk
Kopi po
Black coffee with additional water and condensed milk
Kopi O po
Black coffee with additional water and sugar
Kopi gau
Strong black coffee with condensed milk
Kopi O gau
Strong black coffee with sugar
Kopi di lo
Thick black coffee
Kopi sua
Another coffee, the equivalent in Sweden would be “påtår”
Kopi gu you
Black coffee with condensed milk and a slice of butter
Kopi ta bao
Black coffee with condensed milk and sugar for takeaway. “Ta bao” means takeaway or “ta med” in Swedish so can say this to any order to mean takeaway.
Historically used as a major port city for the British Empire, it is still a thriving port and financial hub today, so the influences from the past and the present will only set precedence to what is to come for the coffee culture in Singapore.Sit down and enjoy a local cup of kopi or try one of the local specialty coffee spots with something to eat when in Singapore and stay for as long as you like.
Alaine handa
Alaine is a global citizen and has lived in various countries in Southeast Asia, United States, and Europe. She has a hard time answering "Where are you from?" and has not yet mastered the simple answer. Alaine has written for Slow Travel Stockholm, The Luxury Spot, Expedia, and other online publications in addition to her travel blog Travel with Alaine. Currently based in Lund and studying Swedish through Folkuniversitet.
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