Updated: Sep 19, 2020
1. What is the difference between western coffee and traditional coffee in Singapore and Malaysia?
Traditional coffee uses coffee premix while western coffee uses roasted ground coffee beans. Coffee premix is a mixture of roasted ground coffee beans from Malaysia's coffee plantations, sugar, salt and oil (margarine, vegetable oil or others). While salt and oil may be optional, sugar is the primary additives. The proportion is usually 80% coffee and 20% others. Despite the additives, coffee premix is still bitter.
See how traditional coffee is made in Malaysia:
Traditional coffee (S$0.90 to S$1.20 in coffee shops) is far cheaper than imported western coffee (S$3.00 to S$6.00 in cafes).
In a cup of traditional coffee that uses 10 grams of coffee premix with just hot water, sugar may already take up 1 to 2 grams. Two grams of sugar is about half a teaspoon. In western coffee, sugar is normally not pre-added but milk or whipped cream may be added depending on the orders.
2. Why stressed on sugar when this post is about traditional coffee?
Two reasons. First, some foreign travellers told me that traditional coffee is too sweet and with milk added without being asked for. After clarifications, they did order "coffee with sugar and milk" — meaning they simply asked for "coffee" (or "kopi" in Malay) in coffee shops when they wanted black coffee and thinking they will be adding the sugar and milk themselves. Well, they ordered the wrong type of coffee.
Second, World Heath Organisation recommends that we should only consume about 6 teaspoons of sugar (approx. 25 grams) a day for optimum health. As coffee is originally bitter, most people drink the beverage by adding sugar and milk to sweeten it (just like eating milk chocolate). If you are not aware, 2 cups of kopi a day can just wipe out the 6-teaspoon-sugar daily limit. So, ordering the correct kopi is important for health too, especially if you drink it everyday.
3. How to order a cup of traditional coffee?
For travellers, you may need to understand the coffee lingoes used in Singapore and Malaysia to order your preferred "concoction" of traditional coffee. Oops, sorry, "coffee" is usually used on menus in cafes. In coffee shops where traditional coffee are sold, the word used is "kopi". So, I should say kopi lingoes and its a combination of Malay and Mandarin dialects, such as Hokkien, Hock Chew and Hainanese.
Check out all kopi lingoes below and order your right cup of coffee.
# WHITE COFFEE (白咖啡或"咖啡")
White coffee is the result of adding milk to black coffee. In English, it is a cup of "milk coffee" (same lingo as "milk tea") but most people simply refer to it as "coffee" or "kopi" verbally.
However, ordering a cup of "white coffee" in Malaysia can have two outcomes, one is black coffee with milk (as desired) and the other will be Ipoh's white coffee. Note that Ipoh white coffee are hand-brewed in Ipoh's coffee shops, but outside of Ipoh, most coffee shops will use instant white coffee powder and charges more than a cup of milk coffee.
To avoid confusions, use the kopi lingoes that most Singaporeans and Malaysians are familiar with — even though you can still order coffee with a mouthful of words.
Although kopi means "coffee" in Malay, it is a different thing when it comes to ordering a cup of traditional kopi in Singapore and Malaysia. The order will be black coffee added with 1 teaspoon of sugar and 2 to 3 teaspoons of condensed milk.
Kopi is usually pretty sweet by normal standard as condensed milk is sweet too.
2. Kopi Gao
"Gao" is "thick" in Hokkien. This means more black coffee and less water. The amount of sugar and condensed milk are the same as kopi.
3. Kopi Poh
"Poh" is "thin" in Hokkien. This means lesser black coffee and more water to give a cup of "light" or more diluted coffee. The amount of sugar and condensed milk are the same as kopi.
4. Kopi Siew Dai
"Siew dai" means "less sweet" in Hock Chew. In this case, sugar will not be added as condensed milk will provide the sweetness to the black coffee.
5. Kopi Ga Dai
"Ga dai" means "more sweet" in Hock Chew. Two teaspoons of sugar will be added to black coffee with condensed milk.
This is a recipe to diabetes!
6. Kopi Di Lo
"Di lo" means "pour all the way" in Hokkien. It means "extra thick coffee" with more black coffee and more milk.
However, this item is seldom on menus. As milk is more expensive, ordering a "di lo" may incur an additional charge. Moreover, real coffee drinkers will not ask for more milk.
"C" is a shorthand for "fresh" in Hainanese, which sounds like "c" or "si". It means to use evaporated milk instead of sweetened condensed milk in a cup of kopi.
However, the amount of sugar in a cup of kopi-c may not be just one teaspoon as some coffee shops have the tendency to add an extra teaspoon of sugar to make up for the lost in sweetness. If "less sweet" is really what you intended, ask for kopi-c siew dai (meaning coffee with evaporated milk and less sweet).
You can have "gao", "poh", "siew dai", "ga dai" and "di lo" with kopi-c too.
Noticed that while sugar can be added or reduced, there is no such flexibility for milk. This is because milk is more expensive. Adding milk requires extra charge but reducing milk will not make the beverage cheaper. Sugar is very cheap, so adding more has no additional costs — but pay with health.
# BLACK COFFEE (黑咖啡或"咖啡乌")
Black coffee is without milk, which is supposedly the coffee's original state. Yet, ordering a cup of black coffee need to be specific in mentioning the "black".
"O" is a shorthand for "black" in Hokkien, which sounds like "aw". This means black coffee with 2 teaspoons of sugar, which is rather sweet by normal standard.
2. Kopi-O Gao
Similar to kopi gao, it means "thick black coffee" with 2 teaspoons of sugar.
3. Kopi-O Poh
Similar to kopi poh, it means "light black coffee" with 2 teaspoons of sugar.
Before you order this light kopi-o, do try a cup of kopi-o first. Kopi-o poh is highly-diluted sweetened coffee, which usually can't satisfied real coffee drinkers.
4. Kopi-O Siew Dai
Similar to kopi siew dai, this means "less sweet". One teaspoon of sugar will be added to black coffee instead of the usual two.
Oh, this is my usual order! If you like the coffee to be thicker, ask for kopi-o gao siew dai.
5. Kopi-O Ga Dai
Similar to kopi ga dai, this means "more sweet". And that means 3 teaspoons of sugar!
In today's health-conscious society, you will seldom hear people ordering this. Adding 3 teaspoons of sugar will take up more than 50% of the 6-teaspoon limit (remember that coffee premix already has half teaspoon of sugar). And that is from just one cup of morning coffee!
6. Kopi-O Kosong
"Kosong" is Malay for "zero". It means with no milk and no sugar. Therefore, kopi-o kosong is black coffee with neither sugar nor milk.
# QUICK GUIDE
Kopi — Coffee with sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-c — Coffee with sugar and evaporated milk
Kopi-o — Black coffee with sugar
Kopi / kopi-c / kopi-o gao — Thick coffee
Kopi / kopi-c / kopi-o poh — Diluted coffee
Kopi / kopi-c / kopi-o siew dai — Less sweet / less sugar
Kopi / kopi-c / kopi-o ga dai — More sweet / more sugar
Kopi / kopi-c di lo — Extra coffee and milk
kopi-o kosong — Black coffee without sugar and milk
You can further pair up "gao" and "poh" with "siew dai" and "ga dai" to have thick/diluted coffee with less/more sugar.
There is no such thing as "kopi kosong", which is a contradiction as kopi has milk and kosong means no milk. Some coffee shop staff may be forgiving and make you a cup of kopi-o kosong but some may think that you are trying to be funny and "educate" you. So, save yourself an embarrassment.
Similarly, there is no such thing as "kopi-o di lo", as kopi-o has no milk so it cannot have extra milk. Ask for "kopi-o gao" to have thick black coffee.
In addition, you can ask for iced version of the coffee by appending "peng" (meaning "ice") to each item. For example, "kopi peng" for iced kopi, "kopi-o gao siew dai peng" for iced thick black coffee with less sugar, etc. However, ice is made from water, as it melts, your coffee becomes diluted.
# SPECIALTY COFFEES
1. Yuan Yang (鸳鸯)
"Yuan yang" is Chinese for "mandarin duck", which are usually in pairs. In this case, a cup of "yuan yang" means black coffee mixed with milk tea. The colour is usually darker than kopi but sweetness may vary.
2. Kopi Halia or Kopi-O Halia
"Halia" is Malay for "ginger". It means to add ginger water to kopi or kopi-o. Kopi halia and kopi-o halia are usually available in Muslim-Indian coffee shops and restaurants.
Do you know how to order the right traditional kopi for yourself now?