Singapore may be a vigorously modern city-state, but it is age-old when it comes round to dinner time. Mornings are no different. For the first few hours of every day the lithe glassbound buildings and surrounding streets of City, urban planned and orderly, are empty. Yet hawker centers, noodle shops, and prata stalls – their every seat is full. Just as diners in the US or cafes in Europe draw the sleepy-eyed, there is one a.m. institution here which should not be missed: the kopi tiam.
Translating as neighborhood coffee shop, kopi tiam have long been a part of the social fabric in Singapore. In the past you could find them on every corner, and the earliest establishments were run by Hokkien traders. Some are spare and with floor-bolted tables. Others are filled with Peranakan antiques and ornate tiling. In all cases the center of the shop is the drinks stall, owner-run if wishing to be any good, dealing in post-dawn manna such as toast, butter, eggs, and, most importantly, coffee. Better, more traditional, kopi tiam still buy and roast their own beans from Indonesia. Sin Huat Eating House in Geylang is a fine example. Here the coffee is brewed in a silver pot upon a charcoal grill, strained through a bag, and served by a shirtless Chinese man in an open-air storefront. Don’t underestimate the potency of this viscous blend; there’s a reason locals cut the stuff with sweet milk and chase it with hot water. If you do want it black, specify ‘kopi o’.
Besides the coffee, of which two cups seem automatic, the choice accompaniment is called kaya. Made from boiling eggs, coconut, and gula melaka (the quality-dictating ingredient of palm sugar), kaya refers to a jam-like condiment whose very mention will spark emotion in the most taste-weary Singaporean – and this is an island of four million food savants. kaya appears as either a ghoulish green (when boiled with pandan leaves, adding a hint of vanilla) or leaf brown spread. Texturally, it is a bit goppy. Yet it has the sensuous mouth feel of custard. Singaporeans will drive the length of the city to get the good stuff, and arguments go on forever about how it should be taken: on thin toast, in large quantity, with a bun, ever so gently applied…
Make a habit of kopi tiam in the morning and you too will get picky about your kaya roti (served on toast). Killiney kopi tiam near the Singapore River serves theirs urgently sweet and on thick, doughy pieces of white bread. Orders are placed at the counter, and a mix of suits-en-route and local blue-collar workers ruffle papers, talk politics, and joke in the local fashion. At high volume and with biting sarcasm. Nasi lemak, noodle dishes, and sweet buns are also available. Service is also available to-go, which will produce banana leaf wrappers and string-wrapped packages.
Ya Kun, perhaps the most name-famed kopi tiam, has long since abandoned their old digs at the Lau Pa Sat market. Traditionalists lament the move. The current location is a corner storefront in the Far East Square shopping complex. Posh bistros, neon lights, electronics stories, and 50-story buildings abound. But there is still a delightful shock of the old once seated. Orders are taken at-table with brusqueness, but the full-bodied kopi and half-boiled eggs with black soy are delivered with purpose – a very Chinese combination. Ya Kun’s kaya has a more refined taste, musty and nutty and with sugary tang. It is spread with a spoon on sheet-thin toast, underlining the flavor. If only the bread were crunchier!
Life may be fast in this island-nation, but there’s always another morning for kopi tiam.
Rob McKeown writes about food, travel, and culture for Food&Wine, Saveur,
East, the Boston Globe, Gayot’s/Gault-Millau, and many other publications
around the world.
Photo: a kopi tiam in Singapore