Foodie Confidential: Lowdown on kopi

While most Singaporeans abroad miss local food, visual artist and entrepreneur Jahan Loh hankered after piping hot cups of locally roasted coffee when he was based in Taiwan for nine years.

His 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.

What was something that struck you when working on the book?

The process of roasting coffee beans manually is complex and tedious, yet it is still priced at a fraction of the cost of Western-style coffee. We take it for granted, but so much work goes into a $1 cup of coffee.

What is your fondest memory of being in a kopitiam?

When I was four, I remember that my grandfather took me to Chinatown, where he hung out with his friends over coffee in a kopitiam. He ordered Milo or Ovaltine for me.

These happy memories bring me back to a time when things happened more spontaneously - people would chat in coffee shops.

What is your favourite place to go for kopi?

Hainan Coffee in Bukit Timah Market & Food Centre, whose coffee I am hooked on.

I always order a cup of kopi o kosong (black coffee without sugar), as it has a full-bodied taste with a strong aroma and it is not too bitter.

I also like a kopitiam in Jalan Besar. It has a gritty ambience and is a slice of old Singapore. I also like to order kaya toast and half-boiled eggs to go with my cup of kopi. They are my comfort food.

What other dishes do you like and where do you go to eat them?

I like chicken rice from Chicken House in Upper Thomson Road and Lorong Kilat. The steamed free-range kampung chicken has a good bite.

I also like mee pok from Lam's Noodle in Sin Ming Drive. It has an old-school taste with lots of lard, braised mushrooms and pig intestines.

You were based in Taipei for nine years. Which eateries do you recommend?

Lin Dong Fang Beef Noodles Shop in Zhongshan district, which serves beef noodles with a clear broth.

I always order a bowl of beef noodles with sides such as bacon and seaweed. There's always an hour-long queue for it.

I also like shabu shabu from a shop called Shih Ming Da Dao Shabu Shabu in Songshan District for its unique dips such as the dashi, Japanese radish and chilli dip.

Do you cook at home?

Once a week, I cook dishes such as chicken curry and instant noodles "on steroids", which is topped with lots of sausages, eggs and fish cake.

If you could choose anyone to have a meal with, who would it be?

Pop artist Andy Warhol, as his art has a big influence on my artwork.

I would like to ask him if he liked Campbell's Mushroom Soup.

What would your last meal be?

A dish from every stall in Newton Circus Food Centre, including satay, Hokkien mee, chicken wings and sambal kang kong, and a cup of kopi o kosong.

This article was first published on September 20, 2015.
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