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On Kopitiam Culture
Singapore's traditional coffeeshops and their colourful history
Every trip home, I make it a point to spend a morning at Heap Seng Leong, one of the last surviving kopitiams in Singapore. The food choices are simple - half-boiled egg, kaya toast and kopi - but it’s not so much for the food that I visit, but for the way time seems to slow when you’re there. I don’t drink much coffee but I always make an exception for Heap Seng Leong’s kopi guyou. Pitch-black coffee with a spoonful of condensed milk at the bottom and melting butter on top.
The word kopitiam itself relects the polyglot culture of Singapore, kopi being Malay for coffee, while tiam is Hokkien for shop. Kopitiam culture in Singapore is largely attributed to Hainanese migrants, latecomers to Singapore as the Hainanese port of Haikou was only open for trade and travel after 1870.
With jobs in most trades dominated by other Chinese communities, the Hainanese took up work considered undesirable, such as domestic help in homes of colonial officials and wealthy Peranakan families, or cooks in British military bases, restaurants, hotels and ship galleys. However, from the 1920s onwards, they faced competition from well-organized Cantonese single women immigrants (the ma jie), which greatly reduced the appeal of the Hainanese as domestics.
When the shocks of the Great Depression hit Singapore, many shop units in the Hainanese enclave (Middle road, Purvis Street, Seah Street) fell vacant and the Hainanese, sensing opportunity, quit their jobs and bought the shops. They tapped on their culinary, housekeeping and service skills cultivated from working in European households, and their determination was strengthened by the common ideal among Chinese immigrants at that time to do ka ki kang - to work for oneself and be a successful entrepreneur based on one’s own hard work.
In these shops, the Hainanese cooks introduced the British habit of drinking coffee to Singaporeans, along with staples like toast and eggs for breakfast. The kopi at these shops were different from those in Western coffeeshops that served coffee made from high-quality Arabica beans. These Hainanese could only afford cheap Robusta beans, brought in from Indonesia, but through their culinary ingenuity and resourcefulness, they enhanced the beans’ aroma by wok-frying or roasting the coffee beans over wood fire with margarine and sugar.
Hainanese-style kopi is brewed by putting ground coffee beans into a large muslin sock and pouring hot water through it. Sugar and condensed milk are then added. The introduction of milk with coffee was also the British’s influence as the mainland Chinese did not have a habit of taking coffee with milk.
There are many variations on the standard, here are some:
Kopi C Coffee with sugar and Carnation milk (evaporated milk of choice at the kopitiam)
Kopi kosong Coffee with no sugar
Kopi O Black coffee
Kopi peng Iced coffee with sugar and condensed milk
Kopi gau Thicker coffee (less water)
Kopi O siew dai Black coffee with less sugar
Empty evaporated milk tins, with a raffia string strung through a hole in the lid, were repurposed into containers for takeaway kopi. Kopi was usually paired with kaya toast - the bread was toasted over charcoal and the kaya used to be handmade at the shop. Apart from kaya toast, there was often a wide range of dishes to be had at the kopitiam as space was rented out to food stalls.
Beyond being merely an eating house, the kopitiam functioned as a ‘third space’, where people gathered to socialize and unwind. They were a place for people of all cultures, religions and social standings to come together to discuss daily happenings and play a game of chess. Songbird breeding used to be popular and many patrons would bring their birds with them while they enjoyed their morning cuppa.
In 1950s Singapore, some kopitiams served as a front for betting dens or a meeting palce for samseng (gangsters) and secret society members to discuss deals. According to some sources, that was how Tong Ah got its start and continued to operate till 1960s - during this time, false walls hid the entrance to a back room, which was set up for gang meetings around mahjong tables.
The success of the kopitiams has led to a ‘McDonaldization’ of two of Singapore’s oldest: Ya Kun and Kiliney Kopitiam. It’s sad to see kopitiam culture vanishing, and being replaced by these franchises or modern ‘third spaces’ such as Starbucks, but there are still a few traditional kopitiams that still remain. In Singapore, you can visit Heap Seng Leong, Chin Mee Chin Confectionery, Hua Bee Restaurant and Tong Ah Eating House.
Hainanese pork chops
2 pork chops (about 400g)
¾ teaspoon five spice powder
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon cornstarch
Pinch of bicarbonate
1 egg white
½ tablespoon oil
½ large onion, thinly sliced
3 garlic cloves, minced
70g frozen mixed vegetables
5 tablespoons ketchup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons light sauce
1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed with 150g water
Salt and sugar to taste
For the coating:
Flour, for coating
1 egg, for coating
85g cream crackers, crushed by hand (should have some pebbly bits)
Pound the pork chops with the back of cleaver to flatten. Toss them with the marinade ingredients to coat well, then set aside for at least an hour to marinate.
Heat the oil in a pan and fry the onion until slightly softened. Add the garlic and fry for another minute. Add the vegetables, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and light sauce. Add the cornstarch slurry and cook until thickened – adjust the consistency with more cornstarch or more water if necessary. Season with salt and sugar to taste.
Deep-fry the pork chops at 180C until golden brown. Drain on paper towels and season with salt. Rest and slice if desired. Transfer to a serving dish and top with the warm sauce.
For overseas Singaporeans like me who are homesick and can’t travel back home, I encourage you to try making your own bak kwa! I can’t describe how wonderful a feeling it is to eat bak kwa that tastes like the ones back home, in a foreign land! Actually for those of you living in Singapore, it might be worth making your own too - I’ve heard that it’s getting really expensive and the quality has been dropping. I’ve provided two methods - one’s the traditional way of grilling the meat over charcoal, and the other’s an easier home version of pan-frying. Both work well!
500g minced pork belly
1 tablespoon soy
1 tablespoon kecap manis
1 tablespoon fish sauce
3/4 tablespoon oyster sauce
Pinch of five spice powder
Pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
2 teaspoons dark soy sauce
2 teaspoons red yeast powder
Salt to taste, about 1 teaspoon
15x13” baking tray
1 ½ tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon hot water
Mix all the ingredients together thoroughly until the mixture is sticky. Marinate for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator. Roll it out on baking paper to a thickness of 1.5-2mm. Bake 15 minutes at 175C. Cut into squares. Flip and bake for another 15 minutes. Brush with honey water or maltose. Cut into pieces and grill it on charcoal.