How to Order Drinks at a Kopitiam

You would think that ordering a coffee, tea or juice would be just that simple. It is, at a modern eatery or cafe, but in a traditional coffeeshop, also known as kopitiam in Malaysia, a novice will almost certainly need time to get used to the terms. If Starbucks wasn’t established thousands of miles away in Seattle about 40 years ago, I’d have thought they took the idea of custom-made drinks from our kopitiams, which have been around for almost twice as long as Starbucks. (You know how they are with their drinks. Care for a tall, iced, no whip cream, no sugar, half soy milk, half low-fat milk, green tea frappuccino, anyone?)

Yeah. Ordering coffee or tea at kopitiam and mamak are (almost) that kind of complicated, and having been away for years, I needed a bit of a refresher myself. The traditional corner kopitiam is slowly shrinking in numbers, but terminology for drink ordering is still very much alive at the hawkers. I’m writing this post for my own good really, but those of you who are new to the local food scene and want to learn how to order drinks like a local, here’s a basic guide to help you along. For the purpose of keeping things simple, I’ll focus mainly on kopi (coffee) and teh (tea,) the most customised of drinks by kopitiam patrons.

Three Main Types of Kopi and Teh

with sweet *condensed milk Kopi Teh
black, with sugar Kopi O Teh O
with **evaporated milk & sugar Kopi C Teh C

*condensed milk: a sweet, thick, gooey milk that comes in a can and melts in a hot drink when stirred. It is also used in desserts.
**evaporated milk: dense unsweetened milk. Has a much soupier texture than condensed milk.

Terms to Know for Customising Your Drink

Term Meaning Term Meaning
Ping Iced/Cold Kosong
No sugar
Gao Stronger Xiu (Siu) Dim or Xiu Dai Less sugar
Po Weaker Gah Dim or Gah Dai Extra sugar

Now you know the inside kopitiam lingo for ordering beverages, it’ll be a cinch to get exactly what you want once you get the hang of it. Longing for a cold glass of strong tea with less sugar? Or a black coffee, no sugar?

You know you got this.

More Tips

-In the English-speaking world, ordering a “coffee” or “tea” means you get coffee black or plain tea with no sugar or milk added. Ordering “kopi” at a kopitiam gets you a beverage with sweet condensed milk added. Same thing for “teh.”

-Remember that Kopi (or teh) by default cannot be sugar-less because condensed milk is already sweetened. The magic word for a sugar-less cup of Kopi C or Kopi O is “kosong.” Other available beverages that cannot be served unsweetened are Milo, Horlicks and Nescafe.

Kopi C might be easily confused for Kopi, but the “C” stands for Carnation, a popular brand of evaporated milk. “C” does not stand for condensed.

-What is cham? In Cantonese, the word means “mix,” but in the kopitiam world, cham is a unique and delicious drink of kopi and teh blended together in one ceramic coffee cup (or glass if you’re having it peng.) All the same rules for customizing cham applies, but it’s highly recommended that your first try should be cham or cham peng.

-Terms used for customising is also used for other drinks at a kopitiam, or even hawker stalls. Have your favourite guava juice kosong, or if you’re feeling more adventurous, a linci kang gah dai; but a barley peng xiu dim is the perfect thirst quencher on extra sweltering hot days.

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