Growing up in Singapore, breakfast and tea time mean indulging in my favourite local foods like curry puffs (hmm sardines…), fried fish balls, nonya kuehs, char bee hoon, fried carrot cake (black or white, I’m not fussy!) and pandan chiffon cake just to name a few. The thing is, these don’t go with my usual café au lait. Rather they go best with a good local coffee – fragrant, strong and rich with condensed milk.

Dotted around Singapore, especially in the neighbourhood markets, are small shops selling local coffee powder. These have different tins of coffee powder and beans with different prices. I wonder if there is one particular Singapura blend, what goes into these coffee powders and what gives our coffee the unique flavour?

I hope the secret is not in the sock.

According to Benny Tan of Lam Yeo Coffee Powder Factory, our local coffee is roasted with sugar and oil (either butter or margarine) and its strong aroma is from the burnt sugar. In older days, for those on a tighter budget, there is coffee powder made by roasting coffee with maize. “Last time, people buy this because it’s cheaper. But they’ve become used to the taste, so they still buy to drink,” he explains. His shop continues to sell the coffee powder roasted with maize at $8.50 per kg.

Every coffee powder provider creates and sells his own blend of coffee powder. “There’s no single recipe to say what beans and how much sugar,” he said. For Lam Yeo Coffee, Benny picks out his beans and sends them to the roaster along with the proportion of sugar and margarine for the blend that he wants. He shows me the Robusta beans that have been roasted with sugar and margarine. These beans, simply labelled as “Coffee Mixture” were dark, almost black, shiny and wonderfully aromatic. He sells these for $13 per kg.

Next to it is a tin of dull-coloured browned coffee beans labelled as “Coffee”. These, he explained, are the same beans – roasted without sugar and margarine. They cost more at $15 per kg.

Standing at the doorway of the shop, a man with a helmet quietly took in the sights for the longest time before deciding on a kilogram of the beans roasted with sugar and margarine. That, apparently, is the most popular coffee at Lam Yeo. Benny recommends that for people who likes “kopi kau”.

For me, who has issues with very strong coffee, Benny offered to do a mix of beans for me. He scoops from the tins marked “Coffee Mixture” and “Bali Coffee” and weighs out 300g for me. There’s no CRM (customer relationship management) system in place at Lam Yeo as they are rather old-school which means that I have to remember the selected beans. If I still find that too strong, I just need to let him know and he’ll work out another blend for me.

Must I only brew my new stash of coffee powder with a sock? No, Benny can grind the beans to the suit the apparatus that I am using. Even if I’m using a sock, he says that I should brew the coffee powder in a pot first before filtering it with the sock. Not put the powder into the sock and just pour water through it.

It has been a few days of feeding my twice-daily coffee habit with customised local coffee using my French press. On the first day, I tried it with fresh milk and sugar. It was awful – tasted too strong and harsh. Subsequently, I switched to using condensed milk. The coffee turned out creamy and fragrant with oomph!

Makes me want to bake an old-fashioned rich butter cake to go with this brew.

Lam Yeo Coffee Powder Factory
328 Balestier Road, Singapore 329760
Tel: 6256 2239
Opening Hours: 9am to 5pm (Monday to Friday), 9am to 5pm (Saturday), Closed on Sunday

Joh Ju is a PR professional specialising in B2B communications for clients in life sciences and hi-technology industries. Outside of work, she enjoys exploring Singapore for unique finds and good food that can be shared with her friends, family and the odd strays in the neighbourhood.