Friday 3 February 2012


How many times have you had crap kopi and teh?  Pretty much nearly everyday. With the way the bigger chains are taking over the town, your little kopi tiam is struggling to make it and also for us to get that elusive good cup of kopi.

For you guys who hang at "Star alotta bucks", you don't deserve to read this article because you were never into good coffee in the first place.  You need free wifi, a sofa,  talk about how long you waited for your Birkin bag or which Four Seasons Hotel you're off to on your next sorry predictable vacation or try to "help" poor Cambodian kids so you can throw that charity dinner and wear your  $2000 Laboutins.  Was I on a tangent..sorry.  Anyways, I need to sort your ass out so listen up.  There still is hope.

Early morning with the breakfast crowd at Tong Ah, with Keong Saik Street on the right.

I've been going to Tong Ah kopi tiam to eat my Cantonese food as it's off da hook..especially coming from  a guy that's not huge on canto food ( I’m a sambal guy )...unless it's great.  The chef is from Ipoh by the way which is the reason it is great.  This kopi tiam happens to also have the baddest kick ass, wanna make you slap your mama it tastes so good kopi and teh.  As we would say here "Buay Tahan".

Wee at work in the morning.
So I hopped down one quiet afternoon after going through 100 CBD gantries, to have a chat with the owner Mr Tang Chew Fue or Wee as he is commonly known, at his Keong Saik Street kopi tiam.  A unique anvil shaped building was where we sat and of course had his kopi and teh and even kaya toast.  Yes I paid for it and am not a cheap ass kinda food writer/photog that brings his whole damn family on a free gig.  Let the poor guy make a dime for heaven's sake.  I know us Chinese never pay retail and want a deal on top of a deal.

It all started in 1938 when his great grandfather Mr Tan Kar Pin came from Fuzhou, China with his family to our sunny island Singapore.
Fuzhou city is the capital of the Fuzhou region on the east coast of China and across from Taiwan.  The name was made up of Fujian or what we call Hokkien and Juozhou or Teochew.  This city was incorporated during the Ming dynasty and consists mainly of the Hans.  Ok, so much for the history of my motherland.  As for my American friends, it's damn far away and west of the Mississippi, that’a all ya need to know.  Can you believe they don't even give you no fortune cookie there after a damn meal?  What a rip off..and they are even taking some...errr....actually all of your jobs too...hang on...actually you guys are giving them the jobs!!  Damn! This really sucks man!

Tong Ah on the left greets you when you drive up Keong Saik Street.

Kaya toast is always a hit for breakfast.
When Mr Tang landed up in Chinatown ( yes we even call them Chinatowns here in Asia how ironic!  No we don’t have ping pong table set up there. ), he rented the kopi tiam from the Arab owners and started Tong Ah.  Keong Saik Street was a wild strip run by a secret society with opium smokers and to this day legalised whore houses....yes, we got hos here too but they too like our city are clean as a whistle as they have regular health checks.  OK so much for hos, now back to the story.  

He opened his kopi tiam serving kopi and teh and some biscuits.  The kopi then was pure Indonesian coffee. There were push carts serving food around the streets which made it a bustling joint.  As you know, where there are whore houses , they will always be good food and you know why.

During the Japanese war period in 1942, Mr Kar Ping passed away and the kopi tiam was taken over by his son and grandad of Wee , Mr Tan Sez Pin.  He changed it up abit and started serving tow sa pia (red bean cakes), kai tan kueh, popiah and kaya toast.  In 1955, they introduced Cantonese food in the kopi tiam.

In the mid 80's Wee’s dad Mr Tang Tar Soon  took over the kopi tiam together with his grand uncle.  The laksa cart which was on the street moved into the kopi tiam after it was renovated.

Wee is the Pimp Daddy and runs the joint now.
Wee in the 90's was blending coffee in Clementi until 2002 when his Aunt asked him back to run the kopi tiam and that’s when everything changed!

Kopi and toast what else do you need.  The cans hanging above are for takeaways!
So now, the great grand son Wee runs the Tong Ah kopi tiam on 35 Keong Saik Street.  He has been hanging out in that kopi tiam.
Another interesting fact is that my great grand father, Dr Chia Keng Hoe who was a doctor, lived in the shophouse right before the chinese temple further up from Tong Ah.  His clinic, Eastern Dispensary was round the corner opposite the Majestic theatre which only had a 4 digit telephone number! 


Everyone here in Singapore has an opinion on the kopi they drink and will have a certain way they will always order it.  Not many know how it’s made or even where the beans come from but we love it all the same as until now,  I will choose our Singapore Kopi over an western style coffee.  Let’s not even mention Starbucks or Coffee Bean, they don’t belong in any serious kopi talk. 

Product control as he says means blending your own coffee.  He blends 3 different coffee beans and his beans are about 2 years old.  Indonesian Robusta, Malaysian beans and the last I can’t tell you as I made a promise to him and will keep it…if I tell you, I will have to kill you and your family.  That’s how we roll over here baby, like our Asian films.

How we roast coffee beans over here in Asia is we do it with margarine to bring out the flavour , some salt and sugar!  The Malaysians do it : 60 kg coffee beans and 30kg sugar.  Here in Singapore we do it : 60 kg coffee beans and 20 kg sugar.  Wee does his 60kg coffee beans and 16 kg sugar as his beans are of a good quality and he wants the aroma and taste unmasks.
On another note, Ipoh is the only place that roasts it’s beans with only salt and no sugar and that’s what they call the famous White Coffee.  Wee uses white coffee in his blend.

When the coffee beans are over roasted, you will get a bitter and bitter tannin with no aroma.  We all have tasted that I’m sure and you know where too.

Can you smell it?  Somebody slap me!
When pouring the hot water into the sock, the foam at the top must be a creamy brown and not a dark brown and if it is dark, the beans have been over roasted.

Wee adds water  sometimes to get the right consistency for each custom order.

When he started blending his own beans, he took 2 years to perfect it before he served his first cup.  Using many suppliers like he says helps him as he never let’s a supplier control him and push a certain blend on him or be reliant on them so he will always call his shots.  A lot of kopi tiams rely too much on their supplier and so they serve whatever they sell them which allow the other kopi tiams to have the same blend.


The hot water  supply tank is below and cups are always soaked in hot water.

The main prep area consists of his tank where the water is kept at boiling temperature with a tin mug to scoop it.  The serving cups are always soaked in hot water on a tray so the kopi is always served in hot cup.

Wee uses 2 soup ladles to make a pot of kopi.

Wee is pouring in the first strained kopi back into the sock to sieve it again.
Water is then poured into the sock till it fills up. After it drains into the bottom container, it is emptied into another container and poured back into the sock again so as to catch the finer grains of coffee that seeped through the first time!

The used socks in front with the new ones behind  ready to go.
This is how you clean the sock.

The sock is made of cotton and when it dries up and gets hard, it cannot be used again. You will never be able to get the same taste if you use your chic expensive I wanna be cool percolator.  Even George Clooney couldn’t do it with his Nespresso machine in his Lake Como Villa with his Italian babe.  Trust me.  Buy the sock for $5 and get it done.  Then take the rest of the money and buy your Italian babe a nice dinner.  I lived with a couple of socks in school and it kept me happy for a long time.

As for the condense milk, it must be REAL condense milk and not sweetener.  The brand he uses is General.  The good brands are $50 per case and the fake ones are $30 per case.  The cans are also recycled as take out containers even before it was hip to recycle.


Wee only uses Ceylon tea.  Many kopi tiams use Indonesian or Malaysian tea which is of a lower grade and of course cheaper.  He also uses from middle mountain to high mountain tea areas which is more superior.  He did mention to me they used to buy this tea in a wooden box but it’s too expensive now.  Ceylon tea can only be kept for a maximum of 2 years before it becomes bitter.  Chinese tea on the other hand can be kept for as long as 10 years.

Kaya toast always goes well with teh!

Suppliers come from all over and send him his tea in small plastic packets to smell and look at.  When examining tea, you only do it in direct sunlight so as to be able to differentiate the different colours the tea blend is composed of.  Also you’re able to see the different textures of the tea.  Some suppliers add vanilla powder for aroma and colouring to make it look more attractive!  He tests this buy pouring hot water into the sock with the tea and if there is vanilla in it, you can see the residue on the sock and smell it too!

He puts about 2 teaspoons of tea in the sock to make the first tea and doesn’t let it sit too long as it becomes bitter.  Same way as he makes kopi, he sieves it twice to get rid of the finer tea leaves.


The language used in all kopi tiams to order kopi and teh is Hockchew.  It is a mixed of Hokkien and Teochew and spoken in Fuzhou.

Here’s your dictionary for ordering Kopi and Teh so you can fit in and hang with us and not say really dumb ass things like “ I wanna a latte.” , " Can I have a long black " or  " A flat white please?" .  Save your self some embarrassment and remember these terms so you don't act like a bonehead. 

Here is goes : 

Kopi : Coffee with sugar and condensed milk
Kopi-O : Coffee with sugar only
Kopi-O Kosong : Coffee with no sugar or milk
Kopi-C : Coffee with sugar and evaporated milk
Siu Tai : Means less sweet.  So Kopi Siu Tai is kopi with condensed milk but less sugar.
Kar Tai : Means sweeter.  So Kopi C Kar Tai means Kopi with evaporates milk and more sugar.
Gao : When “Gao” is added to what ever you order, it means stronger.  So Kopi Gao is stronger Kopi with sugar and condensed milk.

Poh : Poh mean weak.  So Kopi Poh is weaker kopi with sugar and condensed milk.

All of the above also applies to Teh.  So Teh means tea with condense milk and sugar. And so on.

If you want ice added to what ever you ordered, just say "Ping" after whatever you ordered.  So Kopi Ping is Kopi with ice..that easy.

Wee will not serve you milk on the side fool!

Here comes the more sophisticated orders you can impress your KTV Ah Huay girlfriend with and definitely will get you to first base :

Liong Kow : means half Teh and half Kopi.  Actually they make it 60% Teh and 40% Kopi so the Kopi doesn’t over power the Teh.
Lan Lai : 1 Kopi and 1 Teh
Lan Lai  0 : 1 Kopi O and 1 Teh O
Lan Lai O Kosong : 1 Kopi O Kosong and 1 The O Kosong

Now we can hang!

You still want your cereal?

Crispy kaya toast.

French toast Singapore style with homemade kaya.
Tong Ah also serves really good kaya toast and offers two types.  The regular cut and the crispy thinner one.  They of course have the half boiled eggs and the French toast.  No sorry cereal breakfast for me.

My man Wee is smilin his ass off cause he knows he's got the magic brew!
Now that you know how much Singapore love is involved in that kopi, support your local kopi tiam and fight for that little guy unless you want to keep drinking that drain water they serve out of those chains.  This will be the best fun you will ever have with your clothes on people!!   Trust me, and it's for a good cause!  For you guys who have been sucking on that latte in your overpriced cafe, cross over from the dark side as that coffee you have in that sorry plastic coated paper cup can buy you 2 kopi, 2 teh, an order of eggs and a kaya toast.  Don't you feel you've been screwed now?  

Anthony Bourdain posing like a chow Ah Beng with the kopi I gave him for the No Reservations  TV  shoot.  He felt like he was carrying a urine sample!!!!  But loves the kopi all the same.



  1. damn, i got an education. see you there for brekkie next time i'm back - kaya toast looks freakin awesome.

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  2. kaya at this shop is KILLER good! Not AT ALL like other kaya! Delish!

  3. I agree, that was the best kopi tiam I hit up while I was there! The eggs were good, but the regular kaya toast was the best! Love how they give you a thick slab of salted butter.

  4. for me right now, this post is the best thing on the internet

  5. Heh. Nice Russel. Great photos too. I did this for some of my ang moh friends in Singapore:

  6. Loved that place! Especially the way they do their eggs. The Kaya toast was awesome too!

  7. Russel, thanks for introducing me to Tong Ah (in its new location)! It was great and I look forward to going back there again and again!

  8. Love the picture & comment on Anthony Bourdain- funny !!!

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  10. Yes, but they moved across the street (35 Keong Saik).

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  14. Great article on a great kopitiam but too pretentious on the "Atas" bashing. I like a good Kopitiam kopi myself but I won't be complaining if I got an Americano from Stabaks or Coffee Bean either.

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