Thursday, 23 July 2015

Nanyang Old Coffee @ Chinatown

Nanyang Old Coffee @ Chinatown
268 South Bridge Rd
Singapore 058817

After my visit to a museum of city planning that called a gallery, the Singapore City Gallery, I went to have lunch, and then visited a coffee shop that has a museum and gallery inside.

The coffee shop is easy to find, right at the corner of South Bridge Rd and Smith Rd, which is better known to tourists as Chinatown Food Street.

Sign, Chinatown Food Street, Chinatown, Singapore Chinatown Food Street, Chinatown, Singapore

If you're a tourist who's interested in Singapore coffee (and tea) culture, specifically kopi tiam experience, you should give this place a visit while touring Chinatown.

"Kopi" is Malay word for "coffee", and "tiam" is Hokkien for "shop", so this blending of words from 2 languages is the heart of Singlish and its language melting pot (of coffee). More of this lingual melting pot later.

Like most kopi tiams in Singapore, the order counter is located at the front of the entrance. Once you order your fave drink of coffee or tea, sit down and have a look around. Yes, put down your smart phone for Pete's sake. Don't poke it until it chokes, or until your finger hurts. You're on holiday, give your phone and your index finger a holiday as well. Use your finger to get the attention of a waiter or a taxi instead (when I'm on holiday, sometimes my index finger gets cramp from snapping more than a thousand photos a day. I guess you can call that "photographers' finger"?  Now that I think about it, my index finger not only isn't getting a break while I'm on holiday, I worked it to the bone. Yeah, I have to eat my own words, and it's bony fingers licking good).

Now that you put your phone down, look around the shop (as you do so, rest your index finger on your chin, it makes you looking cool. It's like your brains are so heavy, you need extra support of your finger). First, look at the tables. It tells you about the tea/coffee drinking culture in Singapore while you sip your tea/coffee.

Table, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore

By the way, I ordered my fave cup, which is a a teh C kosong. As you know there're the different things you put into your tea or coffee like sugar, milk, etc. The milk that's added could be condensed or evaporated milk. The former is sweet and the latter isn't. This is for people - like me - who wants milk with my tea, and yet don't want it to be sweet.

Once again, this name of my cup of tea comes from 3 languages. "Teh" is Hokkien for tea; "C" refers to the Carnation milk, and so it's English; and "kosong" is Malay for "free of". In this case, it's free of sugar because in most SE Asian countries, when you order a local tea or coffee, chances are that sugar is added (this is the default choice). If you don't want sugar, you must spell it out, in Singapore, you add "kosong" at the end.

As you can see, my cup of teh C kosong captures the microcosm of 3 languages and ingredients from 2 cultures. This tea cup contains no storm, but symbol of multicultural Singapore.

Singapore coffee lingo, Table, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore
Easy look-up table for ordering a coffee the Singaporean way.
(click to enlarge)

So it pays to learn the proper name to order. I'm embarrassing to say that it took me some 6 months after I arrived in Singapore to learn this name. I've asked some local friends, but they didn't know! Well, I just happened to ask those who don't drink in kopi tiams. They're the trendy mob who drink in Western coffee chain like Starbucks. Outrageous!

I wished I came into this coffee shop on my 1st Singapore visit to a kopia tiam and saved me some explaining and embarrassments.

As I flipped through the menu, my eye immediately caught by the Kueh Rice Cake (红桃粿) like a motorist seeing a red traffic light. That's the name in the menu, but without the Chinese. For me, this food item stops traffic. I grew up on this peach-shaped Teochew rice cake that stuffed with glutinous rice. As my late mother was a Teochew, and so she made these on special occasions.

Teochew P'ng Kueh, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore
Teochew's P'ng Kueh, Or "red dumpling"

Although I already had lunch, and was only there for the tea and the exhibits, I simply couldn't resist that eager trip down the very fond childhood memory lane. And since it only cost $1.2, it was a no-brainer. No food costs that little in Singapore.

It's settled after one mouthful, mum's cooking was the best. I don't think it's just my bias. This item was kept in the steam oven for I don't know how long. It's content was soft and soggy because of its prolonged steaming (if you're in that steam oven, you would turn to prune). The rice cake is supposed to be pan-fried so that its skin is deliciously crispy. Looking at it, it was pan-fried, but then kept it warm in the steam oven. It was a disappointing experience. The best option would be to pan-fry it from fresh on order. I guess this would be impractical. I think microwave it to heat it up would be more preferably.

The teh C kosong, on the other hand, saved the day. It was much better than the average kopi tiam with its stronger and deeper flavour.

Miniature sets, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore
Displays of miniature sets of street food stalls in Singapore in the old days.
You can find these food stalls in hawker centres today. You find them at the back of the shop.

Coffee and tea exhibits, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore


Most customers aren't aware of the dining area next door. The coffee shop is actually consists of 2 shops fronts. Since the order counter is located at the front of one of the shopfront or dining area, customers would naturally sit down there, and are unaware of next door where most of its exhibits are displayed (although there're some in this more crowded area).

When you reach the end of the shop, do a u-turn at the door on your left, you'll get to the other shopfront where it's usually have more vacant tables (because less customers aren't aware of it), and have more to see.

For example, you will see display below at the next-door coffee shop.

Shopfront, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore
Gallery exhibits, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore
Left:  The shopfront next-door.
Top:  Some exhibits on its wall

I usually have my peanut and kaya toast with my teh C kosong. This is souvenir for the kaya fans.

Kaya toast jam, Nanyang Old Coffee, Chinatown, Singapore


This place would keep your mouth and eyes pretty busy (and as usual, your index finger will never have a moment of rest, even on holiday. So give it a pat on its back).



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