The Kopitiam Brews You Never Knew

By Hong Xinyi - Wednesday, Apr 03, 2013

I had a conversation with some friends recently, about the markers of a true-blue Ah Beng. One friend suggested that a real Ah Beng would know how to order kopitiam drinks the old-school way. For example, tak kiu (Hokkien for ‘kick ball’) means Milo, because of the kid kicking a football on the Milo tin; and diao he (Hokkien for fishing) means Chinese tea, a reference to the way the tea bag has to be jigged in the cup of hot water.
While these terms are a bit more unusual than your typical variations on teh and kopi, they aren’t really that obscure. I’m sure many non-Ah Bengs know these terms as well (case in point: er, me). To find out if there were some truly obscure, seriously hardcore Ah Beng drinks that were hiding under the radar, I decided to pay a visit to Purvis Street’s Kiliney Kopitiam to consult the experts.
The head kopi-man there is a friendly uncle who only wants to be known as Mr Quek. He’s been working at this branch for the last 10 years. Upon hearing my request, the first obscure drink he thought of was the concoction of Guinness Foreign Extra Stout with raw egg. “It gives you strength,” Mr Quek told me in a deadpan voice, eyes twinkling. In other words – yes, this drink is supposed to boost male virility.
This apparently aphrodisiacal combination is actually not unique to Singapore – there is a tradition of mixing stout with raw egg in cultures in Africa and the Caribbean. It’s probably not coincidental that these regions are also home to former British colonies that served as some of the earliest markets for this particular brew.
What is peculiar to Singapore are the nicknames given to Guinness Foreign Extra: angjigao, Hokkien for ‘red-tongued dog’, and hak kau peh, Cantonese for ‘black dog beer’. These names stem from the canine logo that marks each bottle of this brew, and were easier for the originally non-English-speaking population to remember and say, than trying to pronounce Guinness.
Singapore-based writer Victor Crabbe, writing for booze blog World of Booze in 2011, commented on the blue-collar character of stout-drinking culture here:“Local stout, whether Baron’s, ABC, or Guinness, is, despite marketers’ efforts, a drink for old uncles and exhausted labourers, something sold in huge bottles under fluorescent lights and drunk around plastic tables, something with enough malt and barley to compensate poor diets and sufficient alcohol to make difficult lives seem more pleasant… Ang jikao is not for ang mohs.”
It’s not hard to imagine a similar type of customer for the other obscure drink orders recalled by Mr Quek. One example: Mixing hot Milo with a raw egg (Milo ka koi neng, in Hokkien). “This was for people who were very tired and needed a pick-me-up, or needed strength for a very tough day ahead,” says Mr Quek, who adds that you have to stir this combination quickly so that you don’t get streaks of cooked egg floating in your beverage.
“Eggs are very nutritious, and this is good for people who don’t like the taste of eggs,” he notes. “You can’t really taste any egg, the Milo just seems thicker and more fragrant.” Another combination is adding a small slab of butter to kopi. “Customers told me that this combination was good for curing sore throats, I’m not sure how true that is.”
Mr Quek believes that these strange combinations were dreamed up by customers, and not invented by kopi-men like himself. He hasn’t heard any of these orders for decades, and assures me that I would probably be given a strange look or two if I tried ordering kopi with butter in a kopitiam these days. “But that’s ok. As long they also serve buttered toast and soft-boiled eggs, they will have the ingredients to make these combinations.”

Egg and Milo (image by Alex Khaw @ Makansutra)