How to order traditional coffee (and tea) in Singapore
Ordering a cup of traditional Singapore Kopi (coffee) and Teh (tea) involves a combination of terms that originated from a Straits creole, predominantly of Malay and the Hokkien Chinese dialect.
Unlike the lattes and double shots of European coffee, to order local coffee requires mastery of a special Kopi and Teh vocabulary used only in Singapore. Even locals can find it tricky when trying to customise a cup.
Here are 4 simple but comprehensive steps to get your exact drink of choice when you next visit Singapore.
Step 1: With or without milk?
Standard Kopi and Teh
What you get when you order a standard cup of Kopi or Teh is a cup of sock-filtered coffee or tea with sweetened condensed milk, typically used in cakes.
‘C’ = carnation/evaporated milk
If you’re looking for a silkier version of local coffee or tea, try ordering Kopi-C or Teh-C which refers to coffee or tea with unsweetened carnation/evaporated milk and sugar in place of sweetened condensed milk. ‘C’ is actually phonetic for a Hainanese word that refers to ‘fresh’ (as in fresh milk). But since it isn’t actually fresh milk that is used in this drink, the easiest way to remember it is to remember ‘C for carnation’.
‘O’ = no milk
If you’d rather skip the milk all together, order Kopi-O or Teh-O. ‘O’ is actually a shortened version of the Hokkien word ‘ooh’ that refers to ‘dark’. The milk will be replaced with regular sugar.
Step 2: Hot or Iced?
‘Peng’ = iced
While the above beverages have traditionally been enjoyed hot, if you prefer iced versions to break the heat in Singapore’s hot tropical climate, simply suffix your order with ‘- Peng’.
Step 3: Sugar and concentration levels?
‘Dai’ = sweetness level
Choose your sweetness levels with the terms ‘siu dai’ (Hokkien for ‘less sweet’) or ‘ga dai’ (‘more sweet’). These terms can refer to both condensed milk and sugar levels.
‘Kosong’ = unsweetened
The word ‘kosong’ in Malay is literally translated to mean ‘zero’. When used on Kopi or Teh, it refers to not having condensed milk or sugar at all. It is typically used on Kopi-O or Teh-O for those who want a pure albeit bitter taste of traditional coffee or tea with no frills.
‘Po’/’Gao’ = concentration level
‘Po’ and ‘gao’ are Hokkien for ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ respectively. This refers to the amount of water added to your coffee/tea, and applies to all milk and black versions of Kopi and Teh. ‘Gao’ versions are bitterer but have a more bold flavour to them.
Step 4: Mix and Match?
Things get complicated as your order becomes more specific and requires a combination of the terms above. For instance, a traditional local version of a hot double shot Americano with no sugar would be ‘Kopi-O Kosong Gao’ (caution: extremely bitter!!!). On the other hand, ‘Teh-C Peng Siu Dai’ (which has no western variant) refers to an iced (evaporated) milk tea with less sugar.
It definitely takes practice to not only get the combination, but also the syntax of your combination right. But ordering a cup of Kopi or Teh is an extremely interesting and unique thing to do when visiting Singapore – so do give it a go!