Kopi & Teh

How Singaporeans handle their daily cuppa

01 May, 2010 by

Coffee and Tea, the 2 most common drinks in the world. In Singapore, we affectionately call them Kopi and Teh, 2 words derived from Malay and Hokkien origins. Kopi and Teh are staple drinks offered in any coffee shop (better known as Kopitiam by Singaporean locals). In fact, most of us can’t survive the morning (or burn through the night) without a handy drink in hand.

A cup of half drank Teh.

A cup of half drunk Teh. If you are waiting for a friend in the coffee shop, make sure to order a drink to avoid dirty stares by the staff.

There is of course the Starbucks franchise and many other familiar Western coffee and tea outlets located in Singapore. But to get the authentic Singapore dining experience, you’ll have to visit a coffee shop for some of our unique Singaporean cuisine (Chicken rice, Laksa and Hokkien Mee comes to mind). At each coffee shop, the drinks staff will usually walk to your table and ask for your preferred choice of drink. tackling

Any Singaporean or Malaysian would have no problems with ordering a drink from the often non-English speaking staff. For foreigners though, the sheer amount of Singlish jargon used when ordering a simple coffee or tea becomes a huge hindrance. Having a Singaporean friend whenever you are in town definitely helps, but what happens if you are back packing solo in Singapore?

After my friend arrived, we went straight for madness. The coffee shop auntie gave as a shocked look when the two of us ordered 6 drinks.

Ordering drinks at a coffee shop is a matter of skill. It is a code-like lingo, that evolved out of necessity in this multi-racial country. While it might appear daunting at first, fear not, for this little guide will impart you with the basics on how to order your first ever Kopi or Teh.

First of all, it is important that you decide what exactly is your cup of tea (or coffee). Each serving of Kopi or Teh is made up of either roasted black coffee beans or red tea dust. All drinks have a coherent ordering system, the confusion comes from the preferred sweetener. At least within the Singaporean coffee shop, milk is considered as a sweetener.

PS: The pronunciations for Kopi |say gkoh-bpee| and Teh |say dtay|.

  • Unsweetened coffee/tea – Kopi Kosong / Teh Kosong
  • Coffee/tea sweetened with sugar – Kopi-O / Teh-O
  • Coffee/tea sweetened with condensed milk – Kopi / Teh
  • Coffee/tea sweetened with evaporated milk and sugar – Kopi-C / Teh-C

The default order of Kopi or Teh comes sweetened by condensed milk. The other options are denoted by the suffix that follows. Kosong translates to “empty” and results in an order with no sweetener. O is used a suffix to equate to the number 0, it is used when you want a drink without milk but with sugar. Finally, C refers to the usage of unsweetened carton milk (sweetened condensed milk come in cans). Sugar is added such that Kopi-C and Teh-C are the nearest equivalent to the Western coffee or tea with milk and sugar.

From left, Kopi-O, Kopi, Kopi-C.

From left, Teh-O, Teh, Teh-C.

Those were the 4 basics concepts of Kopi and Teh ordering. I’m quite sure sure though, that there will always be some folks who require a more specific taste. Need a thicker brew of coffee or tea? Or less sugar for your drink? Alternatively more sugar for your coffee or tea? Perhaps an iced coffee or tea due to the hot weather? No problem, I’m here to help you with those issues.

  • Strongly brewed coffee/tea – Kopi Kao / Teh Kao
  • Coffee/tea with less sugar – Kopi Siew Dai / Teh Siew Dai
  • Coffee/tea with more sugar – Kopi Kah Dai / Teh Kah Dai
  • Iced coffee/tea – Kopi Peng / Teh Peng

As before the suffixes here are the points to take note of. Different suffixes can be combined to further specify your order. Kao literally means “thick”. Siew Dai means less sugar and the opposite, Kah Dai. Lastly, Peng translates to “ice”.

From left, Teh-C Siew Dai, Kopi-O Kah Dai. There's no visible difference in the sugar levels but you can taste the difference.

Note: If you want your coffee or tea on the go, just let them know by adding “Da Bao”.

With some practice, you too can be proficient in ordering your cup of Kopi and Teh in Singlish. Something you will eventually need to come with terms to if you intend on staying in Singapore for long. I sincerely hope this guide had been useful to you and hopefully help you break into the Singapore and Singlish culture.

I will end this post with a short quiz. Based on the information here, try to figure out how to order a strongly brewed coffee with extra sugar and an iced tea with evaporated milk and sugar. Scroll below for the answer.

Failed attempt to try to finish all the drinks. In total, we ordered 8 drinks and ate chicken rice during this session.

Another shot. Everything was for the benefit of our readers.

Answer:  Kopi-O Kao Kah Dai, Teh-C Peng.

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Addicted to film, Yan shoots with a black Nikon Fm3a. For special occasions, Yan shoots with a Mamiya Sekor TLR.