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When coffee needs buttering up

As the predecessor to dalgona and bulletproof coffees, kopi gu you, or butter coffee, is the quotidian fuel that keeps the island nation of Singapore chugging along

Butter coffee with kaya toast in Singapore.
Butter coffee with kaya toast in Singapore. (Istockphoto)

If there is one dining discomfort that conversely assures me of a no-nonsense and authentic restaurant experience, then it would have to be the brusque, borderline rude server. And the older and more iconic the establishment, the more does this augment with the real, gritty character of the place. The fact that they couldn’t care less about their attitude, letting their fare speak for itself, and thus, bringing in diners by the droves is enough for me to forgive all the rudeness.

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A few months ago, I found myself at the legendary Tong Ah Eating House in Singapore getting an earful from a septuagenarian server who seemed to be losing her patience with me. Located along Keong Saik Road, this place is one of the oldest kopitiams in the island nation. These are coffee shops that sprung up in the mid 1900s serving kaya (sweet coconut-pandan-egg jam) slathered on bread toasted over a charcoal fire and a range of old school coffees. My server’s ire was triggered by the most popular kopi gu you, or butter coffee.

Bean there, drunk that
A recent inductee into the realm of all things coffee, I’m still in the phase where an iced version of the drink is more my thing than a steaming hot cup. “Iced kopi gu you, you want?,” the sever asked me incredulously. “No way! You take hot. Okay, lah?” she insisted. Given Singapore’s muggy September weather, mine seemed like a reasonable ask, one could say. But not to the average coffee-obsessed Singaporean, apparently.

Literally translated as coffee butter in Hokkien—one of the widely spoken Chinese dialects of Singapore—kopi gu you is as Singaporean as you can get. According to the dog-eared menu card I ordered it off from, it was introduced by Hainanese coffee shops in the 1930s, who added a slab of butter to the already condensed milk-saturated coffee to give it a caramelised flavour. They initially called it nanyang kopi, which means southern ocean coffee. Its main purpose was to help labourers and other blue-collared workers get a calorific start to a long day of working hard.

Interestingly, culinary history shows us that adding fat to coffee as well as tea isn’t a new concept. Ethiopians also add butter to their coffee. Tibetans slip in yak butter to their tea to keep them warm.

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It is believed that the addition of butter gives kopi gu you a smoother, thicker mouthfeel with a nutty finish, thus taking the harsh edge off the Robusta coffee beans. I am told they are the preferred coffee beans in Asia, as they contain a high dosage of caffeine.

The hot cup of highly caffeinated coffee I sipped was all that and much more. It was unctuous and creamy with a slight salinity; thanks to the rather corpulent slab of salted butter that slowly melted its way into the cup’s murky brown depths.

The OG v/s the wannabe

A few days later, I found myself in the more genial setting of another iconic Singaporean kopitiam that is as old school as it can get. The Heap Seng Leong coffee shop along Singapore’s North Bridge Road is the kind of place that seems frozen in time with its Formica-topped tables, chairs, tiles and vintage décor. It’s famous for its traditional tze char (hawker center-style dishes), and breakfast sets of kaya toast with runny eggs. All these, best chased with a glass of kopi gu you.

It was here that the middle-aged man behind the counter told me how this original butter coffee set the template for hipster chic types of coffee drinks like the beaten dalgona. And more so, the rage called bulletproof coffee that was developed, named and made popular by the American entrepreneur Dave Asprey. Only here, in addition to the unsalted butter in the brewed coffee, there is something called as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that is mixed in.

I was told (by the aforementioned man) that MCTs are a type of fat that can be easily digested. They are added to the coffee in the form of cold pressed coconut and palm kernel oils which naturally contain MCTs. These serve to not only give energy, but also supports one’s digestive health, help manage blood sugar, and aid in weight loss.

On the flip side, a story by the Mayo Clinic, titled Mayo Clinic Minute: Why the 'bulletproof coffee' trend isn't a magic bullet, says that the saturated fats and high calorie levels found in butter coffee may not be healthy in the long run. It also claims that such fat-enhanced hot coffees also lack many of the nutrients found in whole foods, and could increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.

With the advent of veganism, quite a few of the new wave coffee shops in Singapore made an interesting change to the way kopi gu you is now made and served. The vegan version of butter coffee has cacao butter and soy lecithin. While the former has a mild flavour that can be a good butter stand-in, the latter is a multipurpose soy derivative that acts as an emulsifier to stop the oil and cacao butter from separating.

While the debate around the pros and cons of butter coffee via its many hipster doppelgangers continues, it sure made me bite the 'bullet' and get myself a ringside view of Singapore's fascinating coffee culture—one hot cup at a time.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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