Kaya Toast and Kopi — A Guide to Singapore’s Quintessential Breakfast
Kaya toast and kopi must be the most quintessential of breakfasts in Singapore. And it’s hard to resist an opportunity to participate in a local morning ritual that involves sipping, dunking and crunching.
We’ve long loved a good strong kopi — since we first sipped the inky brew on our inaugural trip to Malaysia twelve years ago. But we were ambivalent about kaya toast, which we only tried for the first time on a not-so-distant trip to Borneo. It didn’t make an impression at the time, though that was set to change…
Breakfast in Singapore — Kaya Toast and Kopi
Kaya Toast and Kopi
Kopi is the Malay-Hokkien name for the smooth, thick, syrupy coffee made from sweetened condensed milk found all over Singapore, Malaysia, parts of Indonesia, and even in Cambodia and Thailand where there are Cambodians and Thais of Chinese heritage.
Kaya is a sweet spread, that can sometimes be almost custard-like, concocted from coconut, sugar, eggs, and either pandan, when it’s greenish-yellow, or palm sugar, when it’s a brownish colour. Kaya is too sweet for my taste and would be more palatable if the coconut was more pronounced, but I do appreciate why people love it.
Kaya toast is simply kaya spread over thick slabs of margarine or butter, sandwiched between two pieces of toast. Often twice toasted, it can be very dry and crispy (although I’m told this is how Singaporeans prefer it) and it tends to be cold by the time it arrives at the table.
It’s thought that Hainanese immigrants, who often worked as cooks for the tea and toast-loving British during the colonial period, replaced European-style jams with their Southeast Asian equivalent, thereby inventing the breakfast dish.
Kaya Toast and Kopi Singapore Style
What made kaya toast and kopi more appetising in Singapore than Sabah was the addition of soft boiled eggs served in a small dish on the side into which the kaya toast is dipped. As dunking buttered toast fingers (or soldiers, as we called them then) into soft-boiled eggs was a breakfast favourite of our Australian childhoods, we got this completely.
And the way they do their eggs in Singapore, so that the yolk is still runny and the whites soft, is something I usually struggle to get hotels in Southeast Asia to do. Dunking the kaya toast softens the crunch a tad and the savouriness of the eggs balances out the sweetness of the kaya. The bittersweet flavours of the kopi… well, let’s just say there are few better ways to kickstart a day.
So where do you go for kaya toast and kopi? Head to a kopitiam of course — another term from the Chinese Hokkien and Hakka dialects.
These traditional coffee shops are all over Singapore (as well as Malaysia, especially Penang, and southern Thailand, particularly in Phuket) and come in many shapes and forms, from simple, old-fashioned places that have clearly seen better days to smart, contemporary cafés that have been franchised, like Ya Kun Kaya Toast, which started out as a coffee stall in 1944.
You also don’t have to limit kopi and kaya toast to breakfast time. In recent years, as part of what I like to call the ‘everything old is new again trend’, kaya toast and kopi has gone beyond breakfast to become a popular snack at anytime of day that young Singaporeans increasingly go out to enjoy together with a group of friends. And this is how to explain the flourishing of the contemporary kopitiam franchise.
How to Order Kaya Toast and Kopi
You can order your kopi, kaya toast and eggs separately or as a set that will be presented to you on a tray. In most kopitiams you generally order at the counter and the tray delivered to your table. The set always tends to be a little bit cheaper too.
If you want the coffee I described above with condensed milk, just order ‘kopi’. If you’d prefer it with evaporated milk, it’s ‘kopi c’. (The ‘c’ comes from the Hainanese ‘xi’ meaning ‘fresh’, as in fresh evaporated milk.) If you want either of those with ice, then it’s ‘kopi peng’ (‘peng’ meaning iced) and ‘kopi c peng’ respectively.
For sweet, hot black coffee, order ‘kopi o’ (‘o’ is black); with ice, it’s ‘kopi o peng’. If you’d like it hot and black but without sugar, say ‘kopi o kosong’ (‘kosong’ means zero); with ice, ‘kopi oh kosong peng’. And if you prefer any of those options with evaporated milk instead of condensed, just add a ‘c’ after kopi, so ‘kopi c kosong’, which is hot coffee, unsweetened, with evaporated milk. You get the idea.
Our Picks of the Best Kopitiams in Singapore
Ya Kun Kaya Toast
Our first experience of kaya toast and kopi was at Ya Kun Kaya Toast, one of the oldest kopitiams in Singapore, which is now part of a fast-growing chain. The original coffee shop has more character but this simple café in the Fortune Centre (famous for its Muslim vegetarian eateries), was recommended to us. It was some of the crunchiest toast we had, the kaya was creamy and sugary, and the kopi was syrupy and sweet. But the eggs, oh the eggs. These must be the world’s most perfectly soft-boiled eggs.
18 China Street, Far East Square (original)
Fortune Centre, 190 Middle Road, Bras Basah-Bugis area, open from 7.30am
Nanyang Old Coffee
Toast that wasn’t too crunchy, kaya that wasn’t overly sweet, precisely cooked eggs, and deliciously muddy kopi. At this Chinatown branch of Nanyang Old Coffee, a small franchise, locals tend to sit inside in the air-conditioned cool while tourists opt for outside tables on the corner of the recently revitalised Smith Street eat street. There’s a miniscule coffee museum inside with a small display of coffee paraphernalia, including a primitive roasting machine, traditional porcelain cups and antique coffee tins.
Corner Smith Street and South Bridge Road, Chinatown, open from 7am
Tong Ah Coffee Shop
The kaya is coarse and flavoursome, the butter spread thick, and the twice-grilled toast crunchy. The coffee, half of which ends up on the saucer (presentation is not the old bloke’s strong point) is syrupy, strong and sweet. The noodles (different menu; made out back) also appear to be popular.
36 Keong Saik Road, Chinatown, open from 7am
At one of Singapore’s oldest Hainanese coffee shops — first known as Qiong Xin He — you can expect heady, freshly roasted coffee and creamy butter and pandan kaya on thick soft toast. French toast is also a signature dish of one of the original owners, Ah Gong, who started at the old kopitiam in 1951 before selling it in the 1990s when it became Killeney Kopitam. It’s now a chain with franchises across Southeast Asia and Australia.
67 Killiney Road, near Orchard Road, open from 6am
Good Morning Nanyang Café
Creamy aromatic coffee and pandan kaya jam and butter spread on your choice of thickly sliced white or brown toast, fresh-baked scones or Italian ciabatta. Set in a community centre, it’s largely locals sipping, dunking and crunching here.
Telok Ayer Hong Lim Green Community Centre, 20 Upper Pickering Street, Chinatown, open from 7.30am
UPDATE: The Good Morning Nanyang cafe at Hong Lim Green has closed, but they still have outlets at Far East Plaza on Scotts Road and The Grandstand in Bukit Timah.
Do you like kaya toast and kopi and do you have a favourite kopitiam in Singapore? Feel free to share your recommended spots in the comments below and we’ll try them on our next trip.