Kopi Is My New Coffee Favorite in Singapore

I have to admit, since moving to Singapore several years ago, I’ve become a coffee addict, leaving Starbucks and Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf to say hello to kopitiams which sell my new beloved, kopi.  Once I tasted local hand brewed coffee, and figured out exactly what to ask for, I was hooked.  And, apparently, I’m not alone as even Anthony Bourdain is reported to love the stuff!

Anthony Bourdain with Kopi Given To Him by Photographer Russel Wong (Photo: The Wong List)

Before cappuccino there was kopi, a staple drink offered in any kopitiam (local coffee shop) in Singapore and Malaysia. Kopi is a traditional brew of strong finely ground coffee in a tall metal pot which is then poured through a cotton “sock-like” filter. Made with a blend of mostly Robusta coffee beans, kopi is a heartier, more highly caffeinated strain of coffee vs. Arabica, a premium more expensive bean used in most commercial coffee houses (which explains why a cup of kopi is $1 while a cappuccino is $4). What’s really unique about kopi, however, is how the beans are roasted with sugar and margarine. Sounds like a strange combination, but the technique gives the coffee beans a rich caramelized flavor and subtle sweetness.

Kopi (Photo: Russel Wong, The Wong List)

Standard kopi is usually served sweetened with a mixture of sugar and condensed milk. So until you get the local coffee ordering lingo down (a combo of Malay and the Chinese dialects of Hokkien and Teochew), you better like your coffee sweet. I was lucky enough to have my dear friend Russel Wong, a 4th generation Peranakan Cantonese and creator of The Wong List, teach me the the lay of land when ordering a cup of kopi. In his blog post about kopi, Russel gives helpful dictionary terms, in classic “Russel style,” for ordering it so “you can fit in and hang with us” and not sound like a “bonehead”:

Kopi : Coffee with sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-O : Coffee with sugar only
Kopi-O Kosong : Coffee with no sugar or milk
Kopi-C : Coffee with sugar and evaporated milk
Siu Tai : Means less sweet.  So Kopi Siu Tai is kopi with condensed milk but less sugar.
Kar Tai : Means sweeter.  So Kopi C Kar Tai means Kopi with evaporates milk and more sugar.
Gao : When “Gao” is added to what ever you order, it means stronger.  So Kopi Gao is stronger Kopi with sugar and condensed milk.
Poh: Poh means weak.  So Kopi Poh is weaker kopi with sugar and condensed milk.


Every afternoon I take a break and order my kopi siu tai (coffee with less cream and sugar) and wonder about how I lasted all these years without kopi.

Russel and Me at Dong Ah Kopitiam

Check out Russel’s The Wong List blog for his recent post about everything you need to know about kopi culture, including where to get one of the best cups of kopi in Singapore.