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Eating is a national pastime in Singapore, but the complex terminology can be daunting for visitors. Here’s a cheat sheet to navigating Singapore’s kopitiam like a pro:
Know your terrain
- Hawker stall: A small stall often operated by a sole owner or small team. Prices are generally affordable with minimal service.
- Coffeeshop / Kopitiam: Also known as kopitiam (pronounced “co-pee-diem”), a coffeeshop is an outlet consisting of a few hawker stalls. Kopitiam is also the name of a local food chain.
- Hawker centre / food centre: A large center that can house between 20 and 50 stalls. Examples include Maxwell Market Food Center and Newton Food Center.
- Food court: Indoor version of food center that usually comes with air-conditioning.
Know your makan basics
Makan is Malay for “to eat,” but is often used to describe food as well. Ordering fried noodles might earn you a blank face in some places, so go colloquial and order mee goreng instead. Goreng, chow, and char all refer to “stir-fry” in various languages.
- Mee / mian: Yellow noodles of varying thickness. The former is pronounced “me” and can be found on both Malay and Chinese menus. The latter is a Chinese term which is pronounced “me-an.”
- Mee kia: Thin noodles. Pronounced “me-kee-yah.”
- Mee pok: Flat noodles. Pronounced “me-pork.”
- Mee hoon / bee hoon: Thin rice vermicelli.
- Kway teow / hor fun: Flat rice vermicelli that can be thin or broad. Kway teow is pronounced “kway-ti-ow.” This is the key ingredient in char kway teow, where it’s stir-fried over high heat with eggs, seafood, meat, and vegetables.
- Maggie: Instant noodles. This is usually stir-fried to produce maggie goreng.
- Nasi: Rice. A Malay term pronounced “na-see.” One example would be nasi lemak, where rice is cooked in rich coconut milk.
Know your dinosaurs
The drink menu (or lack thereof) in a kopitiam can get pretty amusing and confusing.
- Kopi: Coffee.
- Teh: Tea. Pronounced “tay.”
- -O: No milk. Teh-O would refer to plain tea.
- -Siew dai: Less milk. Pronounced like “sea-u-dye.” Kopi-Siew Dai equals coffee with less milk.
- -Gah dai: More milk.
- -C: Served with evaporated milk. Tea with evaporated milk is Teh-C.
- -Kosong: Pronounced “co-song,” the word also means “zero.” It refers to no sugar. For instance, Teh-O-Kosong is tea with no milk and no sugar.
- -Peng: With ice. Milo-Peng would be Iced Milo. Pronounced “bing,” with gusto.
- -Dinosaur: A large cup of a beverage topped with a heap of the beverage powder. This is usually used for drinks such as Milo and Horlicks.
- Teh Tarik: A frothy favourite where tea is prepared by skillfully passing tea back and forth between 2 mugs. This allows the tea and milk to mix thoroughly and be ready for serving at an optimal temperature.
- Teh Halia: Ginger milk tea. Halia is pronounced “hah-li-ah.”
Note: Catherine is a student in the MatadorU Travel Writing program.