Chope! If there’s a tissue packet on the table, it means someone else has gotten there first. Yes, that means the seat is taken – and by the unspoken code of honour that governs a “kopitiam”, it is a booking as esteemed as a reservation made by any maÎtre d’. If you hear shouts of “Dinosaur!” or “Godzilla!” ringing around the vicinity, do not be alarmed. The emergency is less severe than you think, and no, that is not a sock he is pouring coffee through. Sober up, mate. This is just a typical Singaporean coffeeshop.
For the uninitiated, enjoying a beverage, beer or meal in a local coffeeshop might take a modicum of guts and skill; but it really is something that anyone can master. In fact, it can be a strangely wonderful experience if you know all the tricks to getting the most out of it. These tips are applicable to most eating places in Singapore, including hawker centres and foodcourts. Read this carefully and become a master of coffeeshop culture; you could even trick your mates and watch them squirm!
An unusual way to claim your territory
Tempted by the wildly colourful and flavourful hawker fare available here? This counts you as one of the many, including locals, looking for a scrumptious meal to power them through the day, or night. Due to the busy nature of most eating places; Singaporeans would instinctively look for a seat the moment they arrive. Observe and do likewise if you do not want to be caught looking for a seat through the crowds while balancing a steaming hot bowl of Laksa precariously.
Everything is fair game when it comes to reserving seats at food centres. Tissue packs, café loyalty cards and your mother’s umbrella – anything can be used to stake your claim on your potential seat. However, only use personal belongings of little or no value. As safe as Singapore may be, you wouldn’t put a thousand bucks on the table and leave it unguarded anywhere in the world, would you? Keep the phones and wallets with you!
You do not actually have to shout “Chope!”#55 as you place the tissue packet to invoke your reservation rights. It is simply a slang for reserving a space, and naturally, the use of this word isn’t restricted to the coffeeshop. Now you know what it means when your friend asks you to “chope” seats at a theatre, a slice of the pie, or a date on your calendar!
Drink naming is an inexact science
Don’t worry, the Milo Dinosaur is not as dangerous and prehistoric as it sounds, though it may actually send you on a sugar frenzy that usually ends as food coma. In fact, it is a local spin on the malty chocolate drink that actually originated from Sydney in 1934. Milo lovers are brought to the next level of chocolate decadence with an extra heaping spoonful of undissolved Milo powder on top of an already thick, nice cup of the beverage. Ready for more? Go for the Milo Godzilla, a variant with even more premix powder and the addition of ice cream, whipped cream and a cherry to top it all off.
Beyond these epic-sounding mega drinks, the rest of the drink names#19 actually do make more sense, once you get the hang of it. Neslo is simply a drink that is half Nescafé half Milo, Clementi (a neighbourhood in Singapore) is a synonym for lemon tea (sounds very similar doesn’t it?), and Guinness Foreign Extra Stout is also known as “Ang Ji Gao” (red-tongued dog in the Hokkien dialect) because the original Guinness bottles had an emblem with a wolf sticking out its red tongue.
If you need a dose of caffeine to perk yourself up while you navigate our 24/7 food paradise, set yourself up for a challenge to try local coffee and tea in all its different variants. Both beverages can be customised the same way (or even mixed together!), with variances in the coffee/tea to water ratio, sugar levels, the amount of condensed or evaporated milk, and whether to have it iced or not. You can try communicating your order with your best Singlish impersonation but memorising these drink names might also come in useful.
While you are in a local coffeeshop, take the opportunity to sneak a peek at the drinks bar, or the corner where coffee and tea are brewed. It is usually characterised by steam – lots and lots of it. This is because local tea and coffee are the most flavourful when brewed with boiling-hot water, and the best stalls even make sure to scald the cups with hot water before coffee or tea is poured in.
Careful observers would probably first spot the “kopi” (the local word for coffee) master as he pours water into a “sock”#17. A dark brew emerges from the other end, and this steaming hot liquid is typically added to milk, sugar and thinned with a bit of water before it is served. The “sock” is usually made of white cotton and contains grounded coffee beans, acting as an infuser as hot water is passed through it.
Teh Tarik#21 is another traditional drink with a preparation process that resembles performance art. Literally translated as “pulled tea”, this milky beverage is more commonly found in Malay or Indian establishments, but do not be surprised if a Chinese coffeeshop maestro shows you his or her take on it. The tea is made frothy and cooled at the same time by pouring or “pulling” it between two cups or mugs multiple times, with each “pull” going up to a metre in length. Pair it with Roti Prata#15 at any time of the day or night, and you will have a hearty meal that is sure to hit the spot!
Asia’s answer to pasta
Believe it or not, the universe has somehow conspired to ensure that the various noodles#16 available locally are hilariously similar in shape (but not taste) to Italian pastas. You can usually choose between different noodle types when you are ordering typical noodle dishes in Singapore, so be sure to try it all!
For those who like their noodles light without losing a good bite, “Mee Kia” is probably the best choice. It is closest to angel hair pasta, and the thin strands make them the perfect vessel to soak up lots of chilli and vinegar in the dry versions of fishball or minced meat noodles. Much like linguine, “Mee Pok” is a flatter and wider version of the egg noodle, offering more with every bite. The traditional yellow noodles are similar in size to spaghetti, and the heaviest going noodle of the lot. It is highly recommended as soup noodles due to its strong taste, but is also great with generous amounts of chilli.
If you are up for something that sounds a little more exotic, try “Mee Tai Bak”, also known as Silver Needle Noodles. The only reason why it has such an intimidating name is the way it looks – the tapered ends of the noodles look a lot like needles. Tastewise, it is not at all metallic or prickly, but a springy and smooth staple that tastes good stir-fried, served with a mixture of sauces or cooked in soup.
Ready to take on the strange and wonderful in the eating places our locals share? Take the next step and embark on a culinary journey of gastronomical proportions; see how much of us can you stomach in 24 hours.
Strangely Wonderful Glossary
#15- Roti Prata- An oily Singaporean pancake that is an all-day favourite.
#16- Asian pasta- Pasta has its various forms such as spaghetti, fettucine and angel hair. Singapore too has its own version of pasta with noodles such as yellow noodles, mee pok and mee kia.
#17- Kopi in a sock- Our coffee filters are made with white cotton, and are known affectionately as “the sock”.
#19- Naming of drinks- The names of our drinks are inspired by different languages, colloquial sayings and pop culture yet everyone knows it.
#21- Teh Tarik- We froth our tea and make it bubbly by pulling it, pouring it back and forth between containers to aerate it.
#55- Chope- In Singapore, everything’s a fair game when it comes to reserving seats at food centres. Tissue packs, name cards, umbrellas, anything can be used to stake your claim on your future chair.