Take a break from Singapore Slings and bespoke cocktail bars. Quench your thirst with something a little more traditional by ordering a chendol, kopi-O, or other local favourites. Pro tip: sip on these drinks the super Singaporean way––from old-school kopitiam (traditional coffee shop) glass mugs, or out of little take-away plastic bags.
We’re referring to the rose syrup drink marked by a creamy pink hue, not the Indonesian city. Condensed or evaporated milk is added to rose syrup, and served with ice cubes, giving this beverage its fragrant floral notes. Sweet yet refreshing, bandung is a popular thirst quencher in humid Singapore.
This traditional Indonesian dessert may look a tad unappetising at first glance—after all, the drink is laden with tiny bits of green jelly. But make no mistake, those pandan-flavoured jellies (made with rice paste and food colouring) are a joy to slurp! Coconut milk, red beans and crushed ice complete the treat, with gula melaka (palm sugar) adding the sweet chase of caramel.
Most Singaporeans will argue that kopi’s just not the same as—and perhaps even superior to—regular coffee. Unlike Arabica beans used in most cafés, Robusta beans—they’re slightly more acidic and bear deeper flavours—are wok-roasted with sugar and margarine until they turn deep brown.
The beans are then ground and brewed with a sock strainer and tall silver kettle. Kopi comes in many forms, and the basic version is hot brewed coffee with condensed milk and sugar stirred in. The next time you’re at a hawker centre, try ordering one of the kopi variations—read on for a handy kopi guide.
Start your day strong with a kopi-O, which is the equivalent of a long black (‘O’ means ‘black’ in the Hokkien dialect). Sans condensed milk, this strong concoction is equal parts coffee and water, with a teaspoon of sugar to ease the bitterness. Like your coffee with that extra bitter kick? You can opt for a ‘kopi gao’ (a thicker brew) or go full ‘kopi-O kosong’ (coffee black, no sugar) if you want to forgo sweeteners altogether.
If a caffè latte is your go-to drink, ask for a kopi-C. The local equivalent is a blend of coffee, water and evaporated milk (unsweetened condensed milk) in a 3:2:1 ratio. And if you’re wondering what the ‘C’ stands for, it’s ‘Carnation’ (not ‘condensed’, contrary to popular belief)—a popular brand of evaporated milk.
Let the robust flavours of your kopi take centre stage in this breakfast favourite. ‘Kosong’ means ‘empty’ in Malay, so this option is essentially an unsweetened kopi-C—just coffee, water and Carnation milk.
If you don’t quite have a sweet tooth, get your dose of caffeine in the form of a kopi-siu-dai—‘siu dai’ is Hokkien for ‘less sweet’. With one part coffee to two parts water, paired with condensed milk and just a dash of sugar, it delivers the perfectly balanced caffeine kick.
Perhaps inspired by one of the late King of Pop’s best-known refrains—“it don’t matter if you’re black or white”—this sweet treat combines freshly brewed soya milk with grass jelly in a marbled, black-and-white beverage. Skip the straw for this one and be sure to sink your teeth into those refreshing grass jelly squares.
The Milo Dinosaur is named so for its size, because this drink is huge. A mug of iced Milo (a thick chocolate malt beverage) is mixed with condensed milk, then topped with a generous scoop of powdered Milo. If you’re ready to up the ante, you can even order a Milo Godzilla—essentially a Milo Dinosaur with a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top. This sweet treat is, unsurprisingly, a favourite with the young ones.
Rounding off the list is teh tarik, one of Singapore’s most famous and beloved breakfast beverages. Tea dust is steeped in spices like cardamom and ginger, then stirred with evaporated and condensed milk. After the tea is strained, the ‘tarik’ (Malay for ‘pull’) part comes in. The tea is ‘pulled’ from one cup to another at varying heights of up to one metre—this cools it down and creates its trademark frothy cap.
Can’t decide if you want coffee or tea to go with your breakfast? Get yourself a warm cup of yuanyang. This much beloved drink is sometimes known as kopi cham—‘cham’ is the Hokkien word for ‘mix’, and yuanyang is just that. The concoction of milk tea swirled in with a dose of coffee will give you the best of both worlds.
Try any of these drinks at hawker centres all across the island, including:
Old Airport Road Food Centre. 51 Old Airport Road, Singapore 390051.
Maxwell Food Centre. 1 Kadayanallur Street, Singapore 069184.
Adam Road Food Centre. 2 Adam Road, Singapore 289876.