If you ever visit or have visited Singapore, you may be mystified by our mishmash of English, Chinese, Malay and a number of dialects, or what is more commonly known as Singlish .
Here's an attempt to demystify at least part of it.
Once you step into the heartlands of Singapore, you will discover food is everywhere! Topping the list of eating places is the ubiquitous coffeeshop. Ordering drinks at a coffeeshop is a very Singaporean experience. In this geeklist, I will attempt to explain how to order a drink without embarrassing yourself.
Before you can order a drink, you have to first locate a coffeeshop. These are more commonly known as "kopitiam". As you may expect, "kopi" means coffee and "tiam" means shop. When you leave the city centre and enter the heartlands of Singapore, you will find kopitiams are commonplace.
The term "Kopitiam" is not to be confused with the brand Kopitiam, though the latter's business is somewhat related to the traditional type of kopitiams.
Kopitiam coffee is a direct contrast to high-street coffee. It is certainly much cheaper; You can enjoy your cuppa at around S$1. It is probably sweeter than what most non-locals are used to, but you can get around this easily (to be covered below). In my humble opinion, kopitiam coffee is the most cost-effective coffee to be had in Singapore.
At a kopitiam, after finding a seat, if there are no drinks on your table, you will almost certainly be approached by the drinks stall assistant, more commonly known as the kopi kia (if male) or kopi auntie (if female). If not, you can wave to the uncle or auntie sauntering from table to table, delivering drinks and collecting money. He/she will hop over to take your order.
Kopi auntie: Lim simi? (What do you want to drink?)
The rest of this geeklist answers that question for you.
Possible Origins Hokkien/hakka word 店, which means shop and read tiam. Hokkien is a local dialect, used mostly by the elderly or in the army. Hakka is another local dialect, somewhat less common than hokkien. Kopi to be covered in next geeklist item.
Kopi Dit Loh = concentrated coffee + sugar + condensed milk Teh Dit Loh = concentrated tea + sugar + condensed milk
If you like your coffee or tea really really strong, then you need to add "dit loh" to your order. Kopitiams usually make concentrated coffee and tea, and dilute it only when orders are received. Ordering with "dit loh" implies you would like the concentrated stuff.
Possible Origins Hokkien words 直下. 直 means direct or straight, and 下 means to add.
Have you tried a mix of tea and coffee before? If you would like to try that, your order will be "yuan yang".
Possible Origins Chinese words 鴛鴦, which mean male and female mandarin ducks. Mandarin ducks are believed to be monogamous and are regarded as a symbol of conjugal affection and fidelity. The male and female have very different appearances. Used as a drink's name, it probably implies the perfect blend between two very different drinks.
At drink stalls owned by Indians, you will be able to order "teh tarik". The tea is pulled or poured between two containers held on each hand. This process is repeated a couple of times. The end result is a cooled tea with a frothy top. It also gives the tea a better flavour.
Possible Origins Malay word tarik, which means to pull.
If you are looking for a pick-me-up, you may want to order "tak giu" or Milo. Milo is a drink made from chocolate and malt powder, and hot water. Milo is one of the drinks produced by Nestlé and is quite popular in Singapore.
Possible Origins Hokkien words 踢球, which means football (or soccer to some of you). At one point in time, probably a World Cup year, the Milo tin depicted a guy kicking a football. That image probably stuck with the kopi aunties.
If you like your "Milo" drink with additional amounts of Milo powder, then you need to go for the "Milo dinosaur". It contains the drink with a small mountain of Milo powder planted on top. They will even include a spoon for you to enjoy your Milo powder.
Possible Origins Probably due to the larger size of a dinosaur.
Another energy drink, less popular than Milo in Singapore.
Possible Origins Cantonese words 大家好. "Dai kar" means everyone and "ho" means good or doing well. The slogan of Horlicks is "ho ho ho" and that probably morphed into dai kar ho due to the suggestion that everyone will do well after drinking it.
If you are looking for a can of lemon tea, you can try ordering "Clementi". Most kopitiams do not make their own lemon tea, and when you order lemon tea, it is assumed that you want the canned version.
Possible Origins Clementi is the name of a local housing estate name. In fact, Clementi is where I call home!
Picture by Philipp Klarmann
Clementi rhymes with lemon tea, and perhaps the kopi aunties have difficulty pronouncing the latter.
If you are looking for a blackcurrant drink, your order is "See Geena". It comes in packet form and is quite popular amongst parents and children, due to the advertised high vitamin c content.
Possible Origins Chinese words 死小孩, which translates loosely to brat. "死" means death and "小孩" means kid/child. "See geena" is a phrase some parents may use on their own children if they are naughty. Not sure how it got tied to a drink though! Guesses include the numerous children found in Ribena advertisements, or just simply that it rhymes with Ribena.
A particular brand, Pokka's carrot juice is also rather popular in Singapore. If you want a can of that, the order is "xiao bai tu".
Possible Origins Chinese words 小白兔, which means rabbit. This is probably based on the assumption that rabbits like carrots, and hence carrot juice too. And xiao bai tu is easier to produce than carrot juice for the kopi aunties.
Beer is also available at kopitiams. It is not uncommon to see uncles, probably retirees, sipping beer in the afternoon or even morning. If you look closely, you may even sport some bloodshot eyes. A popular local brand of beer is Tiger Beer. To order that, ask for "lao hor".
Possible Origins Hokkien words 老虎, which means tiger. The connection is obvious in this case!
This is slightly off-topic, but too interesting to leave out. Soya bean milk is another popular drink and it is not normally available in kopitiams. It is instead sold by dedicated stalls at food or hawker centres and are also reasonably common.
Where you can find soya bean milk, you can almost certainly find another local drink by the name of chin chow. Chin chow is a drink that is blackish and contains little strips of black jelly. It is said to be "cooling" on the body, and therefore well-suited for our tropical hot weather.
Somewhere done the line, somebody mixed soya bean milk with the strips of black jelly and a new drink was borne. I actually do not know the official name of this drink, but everyone calls it "Michael Jackson".
Possible Origins Michael Jackson's song, Black or White.
If you are looking for a mineral or bottled water, your order is "Liu De Hua".
Possible Origins Chinese words 劉德華, which is the Chinese name of popular Hong Kong singer and actor Andy Lau. Andy Lau songs were white-hot during the 1990s, and one of his most famous songs goes by the title of 忘情水, released in 1994. The official English name of 忘情水 is "Forget Love Potion". 水, read shui, translates directly to water. That is probably at least part of the reason for linking Andy Lau to mineral water.
Here's my hypothesis on the other main reason. If you listen to the entire song carefully, paying special attention to the chorus, you will make out Andy going "gei wo yi bei wang qing shui, aaahhhh, huan wo yi sheng bu shang bei". If you ask me, the "aaahhh" bit does sound rather thirst quenching.
After you make your order, do not be startled by what will happen next. The kopi auntie will shout/yell/holler your order across the kopitiam, so that her colleagues can start preparing the drinks immediately, thereby saving time. Of course, that means everyone in the kopitiam also knows what you have just ordered. The kopi auntie will then saunter at her own pace, perhaps picking up some used cups along the way, to the counter to collect your drink.
The kopitiam can be quite a noisy place, with frequent shouts of drink orders heard. Which is how I found out about most of the drink names above.
Last but not least, here are some videos on the drinks culture of Singapore: