Coffee, Kopi or Kopi-C

I missed the Amazon Prime Day special on coffee.  Twenty four dollars for two kilos! It was sold out in 45 minutes, four hours before I saw the deal. Clearly, I have much to learn about Prime day shopping. 

Coffee shopping got me thinking about coffee shops and all the delicious coffees I used to have in Singapore. It seems like a very long time since I last ordered coffee and been misunderstood in a Singaporean kopitiam.

Looking back in my archives, I remember when …. 

If we were having coffee we’d be sitting in my favorite kopitiam where they serve local Singaporean coffee in tiny earthenware cups and saucers. Singaporean coffee is a dark brew made from coffee beans roasted in margarine and sugar. It is filter dripped through muslin socks which look like the wind socks flying in airport strips, except that these are suspended over long necked coffee drip cans.

There’s a whole ritual of making kopi (kow-pee), starting with pouring hot water over the cups to warm them up, adding milk and sugar and then streaming a long strand of brew from a coffee can held high above the cups. The coffee is thick, rich and surprisingly mellow.

There’s a code to ordering kopi: kopi-o (black), kopi-C (with Carnation evaporated milk and sugar), kopi kosong (with less sugar) and kopi peng (on ice).

If you don’t say the words right the auntie behind the counter will look at you funny and stop mid stream to interpret your order. You’ll feel guilty about interrupting her rhythm and holding up the line, so the next time you order in English and say

“Kopi-C but not too sweet, lah.”

My favorite kopitiam is called Kaki Cafe in nearby Ang Mo Kio Hub. Hubby says “kaki” means buddy and is an army term from enlisted men wearing khaki uniforms. He knows this through his tennis buddies where he’s learned the lingo. Some of the lingo but not all. Sometimes he gets indecipherable texts on his mobile phone. For example, once after a long absence, he received this puzzling message from a tennis kaki.

“OK. This few days I not fever will Friday c u D.”

Singapore is a multi ethnic country with four official languages – English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay. The lingua franca is English and everyone learns the language in school. But mostly, they speak the family tongue at home. Spoken English is a lyrical, idiom rich patois of Chinese and Malay inspired English.  It’s affectionately called Singlish.

Hubby teaches at the Lycee Francais. It’s a high school for French speaking students taught by French speaking nationals. They have a French chef in charge of the cafeteria and they serve authentically prepared French food. The cafeteria staff are all Singaporean who are mostly Chinese, with rudimentary fluency in English and zero understanding of French. 

Misunderstandings are frequent.

One day at lunch hubby asked for a tuna sandwich. The Chinese lady behind the counter looked at him strangely, reached back and handed him two sandwiches.

I have even more problems with communicating. The issue is that I look Singaporean. The illusion quickly disappears when I open my mouth and speak with my ‘American’ accent. Then I look like a Singaporean who’s studied abroad. To compensate I’ve taken to speaking slower, slightly louder and with longer vowels.

The other day I strolled into a bakery cafe anticipating a morning treat of coffee and cake. Familiar now with the mode of ordering regular brewed coffee, I asked for “a long black with cold milk.”

The barista looked blankly at me.

I repeated my order, slower and slightly louder to make it clear.

“Looong black. Cooold milk,” I said.

She nodded brightly and said “OK!”

Shortly after I received my coffee – ice cold with warm foamed milk on the side.


Originally posted in Singapore, 2016

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