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A Crash Course to Singapore and Malaysia Kopitiams

12 April 2009 7,199 views 3 CommentsPrint This Post Print This Post Email This Post Email This Post

Delicious Kopi Ice- Served in a Singapore Hawker Center Beer Mug

If you paid careful attention to the fans in the stands during the Beijing Olympics, you heard them Chinese yelling “Jia Yo!” as they cheered on their favorite players.  The literal meaning of this phrase is “pour oil,” and it encourages the athletes to increase their competitive furor in the same way that flames are increased by adding oil or an engine is revved with additional  fuel.

The fuel that kick starts the engines of many professional educators the world over is a cup of morning java.  If we teachers had a cheering section, perhaps our adoring onlookers would yell, “Jia Ka Fei.”  (English translation: pour coffee).

Unfortunately, after stumbling from the plane and battling their first bout of jet lag, newcomers to Singapore soon fight their first bout with culture shock when they discover their favorite Folgers or Maxwell House varieties are absent in their neighborhood NTUC FairPrice or Sheng Shiong Supermarket. The tendency among first-time foreigners is to revert to the two places they know to purchase their coffee fix: Starbucks and McDonalds.

Considering the expense of shopping at these Western chains and the affordable and delicious alternatives carefully brewed by native Singaporeans, it is sad to see so many coffee sippers default to the  most expensive common denominator.  You see, southeast Asia is littered with hundreds of tiny shops serving delicious local brews of coffee. The old aunties and uncles that run these stands, called kopitiams or hawker centers, would be more than happen to serve your morning cup, and the cost is usually under a dollar and always under $1.50.  It’s a far cry from the $4, $5, and $7 coffee served by Starbucks and McDonald’s.

The primary barrier for foreigners desiring these tasty, caffeinated concoctions is language.  Created by the mish-mash of cultures that has landed on the shores of Singapore in the past four hundred years, Singapore coffee lingo requires understanding a smattering of several languages: including Hokkien, English, Mandarin, and Malay.  Hopefully this guide will break down the essential of Singapore coffee vocabulary and assist even the most mono-lingual visitor sample a tasty cup of “kopi.”

Here are a few items that you will find on the menu of every kopitiam:


Kopi is the Malay word for coffee.  If you simply order kopi, you will be served a hot glass mug of strong, thick coffee that has been brewed in a sock-like filter.  In the bottom of the cup, it will have sweetened condensed milk and often a small amount of evaporated milk. Make sure that you stir the drink as you drink or you will find a sweet surprise at the bottom as you finish your glass.


Teh is the Malay word for tea.  Teh is brewed in a sock in nearly the same way as the kopi.  If you order Teh it will be served hot with sweetened condensed milk and sugar.

Kopi-C and Teh-C

If you prefer the evaporated milk to the sweetened condensed milk that Singaporeans often use for creamer, order your beverage with “C” on the end of it.  They’ll also add sugar to this blend.

Kopi-O and Teh-O

Should your tastebuds not enjoy the extra fat and cream that comes with sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, you can order your coffee and tea with only added sugar.  Simply tell the coffee shop staff that you’d like Kopi-O or Teh-O.

Kopi-kosong and Teh-kosong

Kosong is the Malay word for “empty.”  If you order coffee and tea with the suffix “kosong,” you won’t get any extra milk, sugar, or sweetener.

Kopi-bing and Teh-bing

Bing is the Mandarin word for ice. Instead of serving you a hot drink, they will serve it to you cold. If you try to say this and they don’t understand, try peng, the Hokkien word for ice.  If all else fails, even the most uneducated, elder coffee shop aunts and uncles understand the word “ice.”  Just say, “Kopi-ice” or “Teh-ice.”

Kopi-gau and Teh-gau

Gau is Hokkien for strong.  You won’t get added hot water in your teh or kopi if you select these beverages.

Kopi-xiu-dia and Teh-xiu-dia

You’ll get less sugar if you add xui-dai on the end of your order.

The Rules of the Game

If you haven’t figured it out by now, you can mix and match the suffixes to your heart’s content.  If you want coffee with condensed milk but less sugar, just say,”Kopi-C-kosong.” If you want strong tea with ice, simply say, “Teh-gau-bing.” If you want coffee with sweetened condensed milk, less sugar, and ice, all you need to do is say, “Kopi-C-xiu-dia-bing.”

Specialty Tea and Coffee

The drinks listed above are standard on nearly every Singaporean menu.  Sometimes you’ll chance across some ethnic or unusual varieties.

Teh Tarik

Teh Tarik is a fairly common beverage in Singapore, and extremely common in Malaysia.  Tarik is the Malay word for pull.  Your tea will be poured between two cups in order to create a rich, frothy mixture.  Sugar and sweetened milk come standard with this drink.

Tehcino or Kopicino

Only a few kopitiam owners will understand what this assimilation between European cappacino and Singaporean coffee and tea.  Similar to teh tarik, Tehcino and Kopicino are pulled between two cups into a frothy mixture.  The frothiest part of the milk is added on top.  This mixture may not be served with extra sugar.

Teh Kotak and Teh Halia

These two varieties are tea with extra flavoring.  Teh Kotak is tea with added jasmine, and Teh Halia is ginger teh.

Diao Her

You’ll get Chinese tea if you order diao her. It should be noted that this is the Chinese word for fishing.  The process of steeping tea reminded the Chinese of fishing, hence the name.

Kopi Luwak

It is doubtful that you’ll chance upon this.  Kopi Luwak is the most expensive coffee in the world and the raw coffee bean was passed through the digestive tract of an Indonesian civet cat.  (You can read about my experience drinking this coffee at my personal blog.)

Personal Recommendation

If you’re new to the Singapore coffee scene, I highly recommend my friend Byron’s coffee shop, Good Morning Nanyang Cafe.  The stall is located in the spiraling Chinatown point, smack-dab in the heart of Singapore.

For a map and details, Singapore’s site, HungryGoWhere.com can’t be beat.

Good Morning Nanyang Cafe 早安南洋 (Chinatown Point)

A special thanks to the Wikipedia contributors and my friends on Plurk for information that was used in this post.

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  • Yuhui said:

    Some clarifications:

    – The “C” refers to Carnation milk, a brand of evaporated milk. That’s like condensed milk, but without sugar/sweetener. Though kopitiams nowadays use other brands of evaporated milk, the “C” still applies.

    – From what I understand, “kosong” will still come with a bit of sugar. If you want your drink entirely free of milk and sugar, then you’d need to order kopi/teh-O-kosong.

    Hmm, even I haven’t heard of nor tried teh kotak and kopi luwak.

    Hey, don’t forget the Milo drinks too!

  • cullenhartley (author) said:

    Thanks for the clarification! The Milk drinks will come in a future post about drinks for children.

  • Exploring Singapore’s Chinatown | Antiques Blog said:

    […] A Cras&#104 Course to Singapore and Malaysia Kopitiams […]

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