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Kopi: What Makes it a Singaporean Favourite?

When living abroad, it’s understandable to crave foods from home. In our increasingly global world (and especially in our foodie paradise), you can often find close imitations and passable substitutes but until you are home,it’s not quite the same. Instead of seeking the food you miss, why not embrace the specialities Singaporeans miss most while they’re abroad? For visual artist and entrepreneur Jahan Loh, who spent 9 years in Taiwan, this was Kopi. Read his recent Straits Times interview and then head to your local kopitiam for a cup!


Loh’s design firm, Invasion Studios, was in Taipei. On his trips home, the 38-year-old used to buy six bags of coffee powder sachets to tide him over.

He says he was unable to get used to the “American-style coffee” in Taipei, which was brewed with Arabica coffee beans rather than the strong Robusta ones used for local kopi.

The avid coffee drinker, who downs six cups a day, says: “You don’t get the taste of kopi anywhere else in the world. It has a strong caffeine punch, does not turn sour easily and is smooth on the palate.”

Mr Loh, now based here, is the author of One Kopi At A Time, a book which delves into Singapore’s coffee culture.

It is about the evolution of the Singapore kopitiam and includes information on how the beans are roasted and how the aromatic brew is made.


The 91-page book is part of his project, Singapore Kopi Culture, which is supported by the Singapore Memory Project’s irememberSG fund.

The fund encourages initiatives that collect, interpret, contextualise and showcase Singapore memories.

Apart from the book, the project also featured a nine-day exhibition on kopi culture, which was held at the National Library two months ago .

Over 14 months, Mr Loh and a team of writers and illustrators interviewed about 50 people in the local coffee trade. They ranged from coffee roasters to members of coffee associations to former shop assistants in Singapore’s earliest coffee shops, such as those in Tan Quee Lan Street.

The book, which will be sold in major bookstores in March next year, is now available at all public libraries.

It also reveals interesting nuggets about coffee culture, such as how some coffee roasters fried the beans with opium-infused water in the 1930s to make customers addicted to the brew, and how cold coffee was placed in ceramic cups warmed on a charcoal burner, to give the illusion that the coffee was freshly made.

Mr Loh is married to a 31-year-old editor who works at the Esplanade. The couple have no children. Asked why he wanted to showcase what some might consider a sunset industry, he says: “Kopi is such a unique part of Singapore culture that we take for granted. I want to capture these memories before they fade away.”


What inspired you to start the Singapore Kopi Culture project?

When I lived in Taiwan, my Taiwanese friends asked how Singapore developed a coffee-drinking culture, unlike other British colonies, such as Hong Kong, which adopted tea-drinking in the form of cha chaan tengs (teahouses).

It is an interesting past that not many people have researched.


How did coffee-drinking catch on here?

The Chinese had exchanges with Arab traders, who brought in Robusta coffee beans from Indonesia.

These beans adapted better to the growing conditions here compared to Arabica beans and coolies switched from drinking tea to coffee as it provided a stronger punch.

The Hainanese migrants emulated what the British did, but twisted it with a local flair and picked up the skill of roasting coffee.


What makes our kopi unique?

It is the traditional roasting process, in which the coffee beans are roasted with sugar and margarine under high heat. The roasting process caramelises the beans and brings out the flavours of the coffee.

It also makes the coffee more rich and fragrant than Western-style coffee. Kopi is brewed from Robusta beans, which have twice the amount of caffeine of Arabica.


Read the rest of the interview here…and learn how to order a cup of the local brew here.

By Kenneth Goh, The Straits Times, September 20, 2015

Photo: 123rf.com

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