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Here’s what my breakfast in Singapore looked like: sticky, slime-coloured coconut custard jam slathered over a thin crisp of toasted brown bread, served with a side of two eggs so undercooked that their whites retained the clarity of newly dead fish eyes. Alongside, a small cup of coffee with an oleaginous blackness that rejected the advances of condensed milk. It was not love at first sight.
Fragrant, earthy, and sugary, kaya jam is the star of a stack of toast.
PHOTOGRAPH BY VIJAYNATHAN KATHANATHAN AND CHANG PICK YIN
And yet, in a way that only travellers can appreciate, a passion was born. The basis of a classic Singaporean breakfast, kaya is a custard of coconut milk, eggs, and sugar, flavoured with pandan leaf, which gives the jam the perfume of freshly cut grass and the flavour of the underside of a lawn mower. In the Malay language, kaya means “rich.” But the richness doesn’t end with the jam. It’s served with barely boiled eggs, cracked into a shallow dish and seasoned with soy sauce and white pepper. Hypercaffeinated coffee, made from beans sautéed in margarine and sugar, is sweetened to an unseemly viscosity. You can add iced Milo, a chocolate malt drink, for extra sugar. The whole meal—order it as “kaya toast”—is a staple in kopitiams (kopi is Malay for “coffee”; tiam means “shop” in Hokkien) and will set you back about $3.50.
I came to see that kaya toast was the perfect vehicle for exploring my unfamiliar surroundings. While the snack is served at almost every hawker centre, I had the epiphany that the experience of eating it is as much about the atmosphere as about the food.
Singaporeans are proud of local success stories, so the Ya Kun Kaya Toast chain was an obvious place to start. Named for an industrious Hainanese immigrant who landed here in 1926, worked in a coffee stall, and eventually founded his own, it’s now an institution known for thin-sliced toast, fragrant jam, and a warm-spirited connection to its heritage.
Old kopitiams in Singapore are becoming scarce; rarer still is the communal feeling they nourish. Tong Ah Eating House is situated in the middle of a row of shophouses on a street that was formerly a red-light district. The space feels like a bingo parlour, with stackable plastic chairs and ceiling fans. Eggs bobble in a tepid bath next to the entrance. But the offerings here are a revelation: extra-thin and crispy slices, double-toasted, scraped to remove bitter char, with homemade kaya jam less sweet—and slabs of butter more abundant—than at any other coffee shop. You can even order French toast kaya, if healthy living is of no concern to you. Regulars consider it damn shiok, lah (an extreme pleasure to eat).
Kaya toast began to influence my travels. One weekend I visited George Town, a UNESCO World Heritage city on the Malaysian island of Penang. Chinese temples, Peranakan mansions, colonial structures, and trompe l’oeil street murals are the big draw for most visitors. I came for the kaya, and it did not disappoint. My friend Antoinette Chia Yen Yen, who is from Sarawak but is always up for an adventure, joined me on the visit and guided me into the labyrinths of the old city to Toh Soon Cafe, an open-air kaya kitchen operating in an alleyway, shaded by tarps hanging overhead. This was the real deal: men squatting down to toast bread over a charcoal fire inside steel oil drums. A dozen plastic tables crammed into the alley, and the aroma of kaya hovered like a genie over the bustling scene. Here the toast was sliced into dunking strips and the runny eggs served in cups. The jam was so fresh I ate three helpings and ordered another tapow (to go).
A beloved Singaporean kopitiam, Heap Seng Leong, serves a classic breakfast of coffee and kaya toast.
PHOTOGRAPH BY NICHOLAS YEO
After more than three years of obsessing over breakfast, I reached the apotheosis of my kaya quest. A search for the oldest kopitiam in Singapore led me to Heap Seng Leong, a flashback to a world of “uncles” in pajama pants, milk-can ashtrays, and old men lingering over newspapers as the day turns from balmy to incendiary. Decades of dietary fads have gone unnoticed at this kopitiam, which specialises in kopi gu you—coffee with an oil slick of butter on top. The taste is just what you’d expect: black coffee plus butter. There’s a reason you don’t do this at home. The most amazing thing I saw here was the ancient proprietor hand-slicing a loaf of bread the size of a cocker spaniel. It was not the best kaya toast, but the improbable fact that this mid-century holdover is in business at all is astonishing.
When friends visited me, the first thing I would do is whisk them off to Tong Ah. I told myself I was showing them a Singaporean secret. But I was also revealing a bit about myself, and that’s the point of obsessions.
My passion for kaya—a food item my father found so inscrutable he put it on ice cream—really has nothing to do with jam. And everything to do with my love for and fascination with Singapore and Singaporeans. Along the way I discovered how to disappear into a faraway place and come away with a rich experience.
Best traditional breakfast spots in Singapore
Local kaya-philes love the extra-crispy toast served at this iconic kopitiam located on a street lined with old shophouses. Breakfast is not the only specialty; dinner features home-style dishes.
Entering this kopitiam is “like stepping into a time portal,” writes Leslie Tay, the Singaporean behind a local food blog. “We need places like this so that our kids know where we came from and what it was like in the past.”
For deliciously messy breakfasts served on weathered tables try this old-school kopitiam, in the food-centric Geylang neighbourhood, which specialises in toasted buns topped with Hainanese-style custardy kaya jam.
The editor in chief of National Geographic Traveler magazine, George Stone called Singapore home for three years. Follow his travels on Twitter @travelerstone and Instagram @georgewstone.