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What Is Kopi Tiam?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 16, 2024
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Kopi tiam is somewhat a cross between a coffee shop and a breakfast restaurant traditionally set in the Southeast Asia, predominantly in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia’s Riau Islands. It has been especially popular in Singapore, where many of these shops are found in the city’s government-funded housing areas. Kopi tiam usually has a long menu of different dishes, but the foods that are constantly present are eggs, bread, tea, and of course, coffee.

The term “kopi tiam” is considered a portmanteau, a term combined from two different words. The word “kopi” comes from the Malay language that literally means “coffee,” while “tiam” is a Fukien word that translates to “shop” or “store.” Together, the phrase literally refers to being a coffee shop. Oftentimes, the two words are combined together as “kopitiam.” It is most probable that Malaysia was the place of origin of the kopi tiam, and it was said that the latter was most numerous in the city of Penang. When the Malaysians migrated to Singapore in the 1940s, they took kopitiam along with them, and the coffee shop has since become popular in Singapore, probably even more so than in Malaysia.

In its early stages, the kopi tiam was a small shop that would largely cater to the lower-class that mostly included blue-collar workers and laborers. The shop would serve cheap snacks, drinks, and sometimes even meals, which was usually a serving of rice and a viand. Since then, these small shops have become large areas lined up with food stalls, very similar to a food court.

The cuisine served in a typical kopi tiam is an array of cultural diversity, from Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian, and Indian influences. Some of the foods found are dim sums, noodle soups, seafood, and curried meat. The growing population of Muslims and Hindus who do not eat pork and beef, respectively, had pushed for more diversity of the food and healthier options in vegetarian dishes. Even Western-influenced food such as hamburgers, fish and chips, and French fries has also become popular in a kopitiam.

Fruit stalls are also present in the food shops. Interestingly, the durian fruit, known for its pungent odor, is the most popular among the fruits sold in a kopi tiam, despite the fact that the fruit cannot enter public areas and vehicles because of its smell. Other fruits sold are jackfruit, pineapple, mangosteen, and longan. It is not unusual that desert stalls stand beside fruit stalls, in order to sell fruit dessert and drinks.

As its name suggests, coffee, tea, and other drinks are vastly popular in a kopi tiam. Coffee mixed with condensed milk would be the “kopi,” while “kopi-bing” refers to coffee mixed with sugar, milk, and ice. Tea, on the other hand, is referred to as “teh.” Other popular drinks include soya milk, sugarcane juice, and bubble tea.

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