The Exotic Bean

Everything You Need To Know About Coffee Culture in Southeast Asia

How Coffee Is Done in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam

image of kopi tiams singapore

Southeast Asia has an intense coffee culture, spurred on but not deterred by corporate chains like Starbucks, Coffee Bean, and Tea Leaf. With homegrown traditions flourishing in Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and elsewhere, local coffee growers and purveyors help to infuse the culture of each country with a unique flavor.

In Malaysia, to cite just one example of this, travelers will find a plethora of local coffee shops, known as “kopi tiams.” The Fukienese word for “coffee shop” is kopi tiams, which heralds an order process that can be more complicated than the one fostered at Starbucks, which is really saying something!

Coffee in Kopi Tiams

The pride and joy of Singapore can be found in its elaborate and ritual-laden coffee culture. Inhabitants were originally inspired by the British trend of sipping tea at all hours of the day, and fueling their daily lives with coffee. The coffee brewed at kopi tiams is performed in a distinctly different way, for starters.

The beans are “dry fried” in a wok together with corn kernels and butter, which gives the beans a slightly sweet and savory taste. The beans are then placed in a tube-like mesh “sock,” which serves as the strainer while hot water is then poured onto it and through it, directly into a waiting coffee cup underneath. Inside the coffee cup, there’s already some type of sweetener or condensed milk, depending on the customer’s order.

image of unroasted coffee beans southeast asia

The word “kopi” means “coffee,” which becomes important when you get to the menu. “Kopi C” indicates coffee with milk, “C” meaning Carnation, the canned-milk brand used by most Asian coffee shops. On the other hand, “Kopi O” means “black coffee,” as “o” is the word for black in Fukienese. And this is only the tip of the iceberg! There are at least a hundred different options for ordering your beverage of choice, be it coffee or tea.

Kopi tiams are only one instance of the many interesting quirks that exist in various coffee cultures across Southeast Asia.

Exploring the Coffee Shop Craze Elsewhere in Southeast Asia

The kopi tiams are only part of the coffee culture craze that’s going on in Southeast Asia. Remember, in many Southeast Asian countries, coffee is also an extremely necessary and important part of any business meeting or networking date.

In Thailand, small cafés are actually installed in clothing stores and next to cosmetic counters, so the coffee there is literally being woven into every layer of Thai society. In the 1970s, the Royal Family got involved and launched a series of coffee products in order to bolster the economy.

image of coffee in thailand

In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, there is a classic coffee beverage that’s served called “ca phe sua da,” which literally translates to “coffee, milk, ice.” A typical Vietnamese coffee shop menu can stretch up to five pages in length, given all the choices available. And farther north by northeast, skipping over China and into South Korea, movie celebrities and pop stars endorse various coffee chains, helping to merge coffee culture with pop culture.

The beverage has definitively influenced almost every level of society in many countries throughout Southeast Asia, judging by the huge influx of varieties of coffee, coffee bean imports, and coffee consumer culture. The caffeine boost most likely helped these various ventures get off the ground in the first place!

[Images Via: Wikimedia Commons; Pixabay Commons]