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Hallowed grounds: Singapore's coffee culture

Email|Print| Text size + By Rob McKeown
Globe Correspondent / July 6, 2005

SINGAPORE -- Though I used to wail about the smell to my mom when I was a child, I admit there is one habit of hers I pleasurably embrace wherever I find myself these days: strong morning coffee. Its heady fragrance, dark and damp. The fruity bitterness. That streak of flavor it leaves caressing the roof of one's mouth. And, of course, the jolt of energy.

I suspect I'm not much different from others in that sense. Coffee drinkers share a common ground whether holding a Styrofoam cup from Dunkin' Donuts or sipping from a delicate porcelain espresso cup in Italy.

Yet I was shocked to find that, of all places, Asia had a minor coffee shop tradition. It's something I first ran across here. I was having a lunch of prawn mee and kalamansi lime juice with Seeoth, a food-mad friend, and discussing what this futuristic city-state lacked. Listing coffee culture along with live music and art, I watched as his eyes opened wide in disbelief -- and fury. Within seconds we arranged to meet at a ''kopi tiam," a neighborhood coffee shop, in the red-light district of Geylang the next morning.

Much to my surprise, once I started asking about kopi tiams I discovered that they have long been part of the social fabric here. In the past you could find them on every corner. The earliest establishments were run by Hokkien traders, a Chinese ethnic group that holds incredible influence in Southeast Asian communities. Although these places are a dying breed, there are still enough of these establishments left to visit a different one every day for months. Some are sparse and occupy traditional shops with floor-bolted tables. Others are filled with ornate Peranakan antique tables and chairs.

One can roam anywhere in Southeast Asia, where the enterprising Hokkien spread centuries ago, and find similar places. In old Phuket Town they have Moorish mosaic tiling; in Vietnam, a funny combination of square communist design and delicate Mandarin detailing.

In all cases the center of the shop is the drinks stall, owner-run if it's any good, dealing in post-dawn manna such as toast, butter, half-boiled eggs (a sensuous thrill with black soy and light pepper), and, most important, coffee. Better, more traditional, kopi tiams still buy and roast their own beans from Indonesia. Customers tend to be older, mostly men, who either come alone or sit and linger in large groups for hours.

Sin Huat Eating House in Geylang is a fine example. Here the coffee is brewed in a silver pot on 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 want it black, specify ''kopi o."

Besides the coffee, 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. Kaya appears as either a ghoulish green (when boiled with pandan leaves, adding a hint of vanilla) or leaf-brown spread. Texturally, it has the 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 a large quantity, with a bun, or layered with slices of raw butter, 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) -- and how and where it is taken. Killiney Kopi Tiam near the Singapore River serves its ''kaya roti" urgently sweet and on thick, doughy pieces of white bread. Orders are placed at the counter, and a mix of businessmen and blue-collar workers ruffle papers, talk politics, and joke in the local fashion. Though I like their eggy kaya, I find their bread too thick.

Ya Kun is the most famous kopi tiam of all, though it has long since abandoned its old digs at the Lau Pa Sat market. Traditionalists lament the move. The current flagship is an open-air corner in the Far East Square complex. Posh bistros, neon lights, electronics stores, and high-rises abound in this area. But there is still a delightful shock of the old once seated. Orders are taken at the table with brusqueness. The older male Chinese workers scurry about with shocking efficiency. Their female counterparts have stares that could cut ice. The kopi here is full-bodied. Ya Kun's kaya has a more refined taste, musty and nutty and with a sugary tang. It is spread with a spoon on sheet-thin toast, which underlines the flavor.

This is the kopi tiam I tend to sit at the longest. By my second or third cup I start wondering if somewhere there is a place with kaya like Ya Kun's, atmosphere like Sin Huat, and doughy bread to soak up half-boiled eggs like at Killiney. Most of all, I think of mom and know that if she were sipping coffee at any of these places with me, she'd be completely happy.

Rob McKeown is a freelance writer based in Asia.

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