Sunday, 8 April 2012

toast box - a contemporary kopitiam

singapore national museum
the singapore national museum’s permanent exhibition includes the living galleries one of which is dedicated to food. it is here that i learnt of the origin of the kopitiam, essentially coffee shop. the word kopitiam is an amalgamation of kopi, the malay word for coffee and tiam, which in the hokkien dialect means shop. the kopitiam is a quintessential feature of south east asia and are found in singapore, malaysia and indonesia. they started up in the 1930s and were largely run by the hainanese chinese and were meant to cater to chinese bachelors. by the 1950s they had evolved into coffee and breakfast houses as they began to serve foods like chicken rice and curry rice. the kopi was made from beans that were roasted in a wok with butter and sugar over a wood-fire, ground and then brewed with a sock like strainer. the brew was whitened with sweetened condensed milk and more sugar. it was served in thick porcelain cups. the indian muslims had their own version of kopitiam called sarabat. the term was derived from the arab work sariba, which means to drink. the sarabat stalls typically served teh halia (ginger tea) and halal muslim snacks. eng’s working paper on ‘the kopitiam in singapore: an evolving story about migration and cultural diversity’ sheds interesting light on the relationship of the kopitiam with different immigration demographics and its evolution into a social space for ‘coffeeshop talk’. the hainanese chinese were responsible for the westernisation of the food at kopitiams given their culinary experience of working in european households. this explains why foods such as kaya toast and half-boiled eggs appeared alongside typical hainanese fare such as chicken rice and curry chicken.  

toast box, orchard road
o’s favourite kopitiam in singapore is toast box. it is a contemporary kopitiam, almost like singapore’s version of starbucks as it appears in most of the malls in singapore (and you must trust me when i tell you that singapore is overrun by malls). despite the uniformity of the merchandise and the decorations toastbox manages to look fairly less cookie-cutter than starbucks. the style is retro with wall-mounted blue and white china, old radios the size of an accordion and black and white photographs. my favourite toast box is o’s least favourite. it is on orchard road and i like it because it has a more organic feel. it isn’t located inside a mall but is a purpose built glass structure that looks out onto an open market.

teh tarik (pulled tea) 
teh tarik (pulled tea)
toast box is an apt name given the choice of things that one can eat on toast. a traditional singapore offering would be a set of kaya toast with kopi or teh. both the kopi and teh are made by a method called pulling. this means that the brew is lengthened with hot water that is poured from a height. a teaspoon of sugar is added to enhance the brew. the pulling is done several times with the grounds being sieved through a sock shaped sieve. ya kun kaya toast (one of the older and established kopitiam) has a fantastic poster that reads ‘screw that french press, we have the sock!’. both kopi and teh are served in a range of options that include black, with condensed milk, with evaporated and condensed milk, with sugar and milk or sugar and evaporated milk. in addition one can enjoy them either hot or cold. despite my near three-week stay in singapore i would also ask o to order my teh as the categorisations of teh ‘o’ and teh ‘c’ had me completely confused. o is addicted to the teh which has all the depth and sweetness of dhood patti (literally milk and loose tea leaves) or pakki chai (cooked tea) – that well cooked strong and yet milky tea that is drunk in the sub-continent. o’s teatime is made complete with a snack of peanut butter thick toast. a thick slice of white toast is toasted on an open grill and covered with a layer of peanut butter. the residual heat from the toasting melts the peanut butter. it tastes exactly like the peanut butter toast that i used to eat in pakistan made with continental bread. o made me try the famous kaya toast. kaya is a coconut egg jam flavoured with pandan leaf, which gives it a slightly green colour. kaya toast features a scant layer of kaya accompanied by slices of butter sandwiched between two slices of toasted white bread. i did like the kaya but found the butter overwhelming. i have come to the conclusion that singaporean’s will eat most anything on toast as toast box offers butter sugar toast, pork floss toast, condensed milk toast and ice-cream toast. they also have milo toast.

older established kopitiams like ya kun kaya toast, killeney and chin mee chin confectionary do not have the modern and polished look that toast box has. but the menus share much in common with all of them offering eggs boiled so soft that they are almost raw. chin mee chin is an open space with high ceilings and is located on east coast road in the katong area. on my last morning in singapore i saw a man enjoying his half boiled eggs that he had cracked into a saucer. the whites had barely picked colour and the yolk was quite raw. o and i had wondered how these eggs are to be eaten as his attempts to peel them had failed. i discovered that day that one slurps them from the saucer much like pakistani truck drivers slurp tea from a saucer.

killeney kopitiam has been part of the singaporean landscape since 1919 rightly allowing it to invite its customers to walk back to the ‘good old days’. ya kun kaya toast has been around since 1944 and has a handy little slogan that defines its toast as the toast that binds kinship, friendship, partnership. both of these have received heritage and spirit of enterprise awards. what struck me most is how toast box is building on the old by making it appeal to the contemporary and urban generation. its location might be in the tall multi-storied and air-conditioned malls but its menu remains rooted in the traditions of the old kopitiams. and it is perhaps this element that i loved most because singapore has managed to meld its über modernity with its old traditions. by extension it makes sense for places like killeney and ya kun to be designated as heritage sites because they are part of the story of singapore's past just as toast box is part of the story of the future.   

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