Food Icon: Singapore’s Kaya Toast

WHAT IT IS

Crunchy toast with sweet kaya jam and a huge chunk of savory butter. A dish of soft-boiled eggs on the side. Washed down with the best coffee or tea you ever tasted. Kaya toast is every Singaporean’s favorite breakfast. Although some prefer it for tea-time. And some folks, like me can have it any time of the day, or night. Kaya is very popular in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines. Kaya is rightfully known as the dulce de leche of Southeast Asia.

 

HISTORY

The much-loved favorite of everyone you meet in Singapore or Malaysia, kaya jam originally came from the Hainanese people of China. Much like the other Singapore food icon: Hainanese chicken rice, it has a very humble beginning.

Many people from Hainan moved to Singapore and Malaysia creating a fusion in their cuisines and culture. During the era of British colonization, Hainanese cooks use to serve toast with strawberry jam and butter onboard British boats. Strawberries were too expensive for the locals, so they made the jam out of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, which they ate with charcoal toasted bread.

 HOW IT’S MADE

The toast is made of soft white bread, sliced thin. The bread is then toasted over an open flame on charcoal, but without any butter, oil or ghee. So the toast turns out to be dry and crunchy. The dry crunchiness of the toast pairs perfectly with the kaya jam. The jam is made with coconut milk, palm sugar and beaten eggs.

Certain kaya jams are green and others brown. The green ones have fragrant pandan leaves added to them. The Nyonya people usually add pandan. The brown ones are known as the Hainanese ones which is made brown buy adding caramelized sugar at a later stage.

Pandan is a commonly used ingredient in the cuisines of the region it’s also called the vanilla of Southeast Asia. The kaya jam is a smooth and silky mixture that is perfectly spreadable on toast and buns, although if you had a jar of it at home, I’m sure you couldn’t resist eating it by the spoonful!

The coffee, oh how do I even begin to describe the magical brew that is Singapore’s Kopi! The traditional Singaporean kopi beans are roasted in a wok with caramel sugar, butter and sometimes, pineapple skin and maize to a dark brown. These grounded beans are then brewed inside a sock, and strained into a pot. The sock is exactly like the socks we wear, made from soft cotton, the fabric provides the perfect amount of straining strength. The kopi is extremely aromatic, full bodied with a rich taste. If you’re a coffee lover you simply must experience the Singapore kopi, it is easily on par with some of the world’s best gourmet coffees. To order the kopi, you need to pick up a little bit of the lingo, as explained below.

The tea or teh, also called teh tarik, meaning pulled tea, is strong cup of freshly brewed tea. Its name is derived from the pouring process of “pulling” the drink during preparation. It is made from black tea, condensed milk or evaporated milk. Much like the coffee, it is strong aromatic and ridiculously good cup of tea. Indians take their coffee and tea pretty seriously, we can’t function without it, and the Singaporean kopi and teh, well… let’s just say there are not many better ways than this to start your day.

HOW TO ORDER THE TOAST

Most places have different combinations: some serve kaya toast with eggs, with other accompaniments or just the toast with kaya. Some places also offer other options with the kaya such as peanut butter. Pick one, or many! The eggs will be served in a little dish, that you will have to crack yourself and drizzle some soy and pepper on it. Some places also have sweets and savoury snacks/cookies and cakes; like in the picture above I chose to try this flaky pastry with an interesting symbol.

HOW TO ORDER THE KOPI OR TEH

Ordering the toast is easy, but ordering the coffee or tea requires some knowledge of the lingo. “Kopi O” is coffee with sugar, “kopi kua peng” is iced espresso with condensed milk, “kopi C peng” is iced coffee with sugar and condensed milk, and so on. Similar for tea. Download the app Kopi C for apple and the Kopi Order app for android and you can be sure to order the correct beverage!

HOW TO EAT

One way to eat it is just pick it up and eat it. (obviously!) Or do like the locals, and dip the toast into the little dish of soft boiled eggs with a drizzle of dark soy sauce and a sprinkling of white pepper. The runny yolk and the soft whites, drizzled with soy and pepper are a perfect savoury match to balance the sweetness of the kaya toast. This is best accompanied with a cup of Kopi or Teh. You can have it hot or iced.

WHERE TO EAT

Killeney Kopitiam
This is one of the oldest Kopitiam in Singapore, offering delicous coffee and kaya, and even a french toast version of kaya toast.
Price: SGD $5 to 10
Timings: 7 am to 7:30 pm
How to get there: It’s at 67, Killeney Road, near Orchard Road. It has multiple outlets.

Ya Kun
Ya Kun is another of the oldest Kopi houses set up in Singapore by Chinese immigrants. It won the “most courteous stall” award in Singapore.
Price: SGD $4 to 10
Timings: 7:30 am to 10 pm
How to get there: 6 Eu Tong Sen Street #01-31, Clarke Quay Central. It has multiple outlets.

Toast Box
Toast Box is a newer chain serving delicious toast, kopi and teh along with traditional sweets and noodle bowls. Every Toast Box store is decorated differently.
Price: SGD $3 to 10
Timings: 8 am to 10:30 pm
How to get there: 133 New Bridge Road, #01-45/46 Chinatown Point, it has multiple outlets.

Tong Ah Coffee Shop
This is a 4th generation kopitam (coffee house). The tea here is the best you’ll ever have, as the owner knows the exact amount of time the leaves have to age for that perfect flavor.
Price: SGD $3 to 10
Timings: 11 am – 2:30 pm, 5:30 – 10:30 pm, closed on alternate wednesdays
How to get there: Tong Ah Eating House, 35 Keong Saik Road

Chin Mee Chin Confectionery
This 60 year old establishment is an instagrammer’s dream: mosaic tiled floors, round wooden stools, marble topped tables. They serve the kaya inside toasted buns rather than toasted bread slices. A speciality that gets sold out pretty much immediately are the sugar cakes and custard puffs, get them if you’re lucky!
Price: SGD $4 – 10
Timings: 8:30 Am to 4 pm or until sold out! Closed on Mondays
How to get there:  204 E Coast Rd

Good Morning Nanyang Café
The speciality of this café is the orange ciabatta bread toast. They spread the kaya and butter on the Italian ciabatta which is light and crumbly on the outside and soft on the inside, baked with orange peel for zesty flavor.
Price: SGD $4 to 10
Timings: 7:30 am to 5 pm
How to get there: 32 Maxwell Rd, it has multiple outlets

Toast Hut
This establishment run by a 29 year old called Melvin is famous for its home brewed coffee. If you’re health conscious, the kaya he uses is less sweeter than the other places.
Price: SGD $3 to 10
Timings: 6 am to 3 pm, closed on thursdays
How to get there: 51 Old Airport Rd

 

Most kaya outlets make their own kaya jam, so you can easily buy it. You can also easily find it in supermarkets and grocery stores and the airport. Make sure to check it in your luggage and not in your carry on. It would be so sad to give your precious kaya to the airport security.

The sweet sweet Kaya toast is one definitely one of favorite things to eat with a cup of delicious coffee. I would love to try the versions in Malaysia. Have you tried it in Singapore or elsewhere? I would love to know, tell me in the comments below.

[Top photo via Shenghung Lin, last photo via raspberri cupcakes]

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