Coffee Culture in Southeast Asia
Something strong is brewing in Southeast Asia…
☀ If you're anything like the Tuk Tuk team, you can't start your day without a good cup of Joe.
Whether you enjoy coffee at home, or at your go-to coffee shop down the street, one thing’s for sure: it came from the seeds of Coffea, a flowering shrub, or small trees that are native to Southern Africa and tropical parts of Asia. The varieties of Coffea arabica (Arabicas) and Coffea canephora (Robustas) are the two major species grown commercially.
A lot of people greet their mornings with coffee as their first meal of the day, like us, you also need it to give you a boost of energy. The sensation that is brought by coffee’s complex blend of different flavors can bring special comfort to many, making us crave it any time of the day. Of course, this experience differs according to the type and blend of coffee beans, the method of preparation, and the geographical source. To simply put it, Southeast Asia is a perfect place for coffee lovers!
Even though Brazil is the top nation at coffee exportation, Vietnam has tripled its exports between 1995 and 1999 and has become a major producer of Robusta beans. At present, Vietnam has placed second as the largest coffee exporter, with Indonesia as the top four biggest coffee producers globally, and is one of the first countries outside of Arabia and Africa to cultivate coffee and promote the production of Arabica.
Matter of fact, for our first-ever coffee feature, we are honored to partner with three incredible Southeast Asian-owned coffee companies: Killiney Kopitiam, Singapore's oldest coffee shop serving Nanyang style coffee; Little Green Cyclo, the Bay Area's first gourmet Vietnamese food truck featuring an award-winning line of ready-to-drink coffee products; and Dua Cofee DC, the nation's first Indonesian specialty coffee shop in Washington, DC, which frequently serves high-profile dignitaries. Killiney Kopitiam is Singapore's oldest cafe (over a century old), serving traditional hawker-style food and Nanyang-style kopi.
Coffee cultivation has improved the economy of most Southeast Asian countries, and each region developed its own unique style while maintaining a strong coffee culture!
Coffee Culture in SE Asia
Most people find coffee houses a good venue where they can share stories, catch up on the latest “tea” if you will. In many Southeast Asian countries, some don’t even have to go out to get coffee. The social aspects of the coffee house have evolved to include the home, and now people host coffee dates at their houses for friends and loved ones to gather and socialize. A study has suggested that social isolation may contribute to poorer cognitive functions in adults of older age over time, while another study found that an increase in social interaction resulted from offering coffee in lounge areas of nursing and retirement homes. With this, we can say that the social interactions we have over cups of coffee have their benefits.
Read along as we take a closer look by country and give you a list of our team’s favorite cafes!
Coffee is referred to as kopi in most Southeast Asian countries, and Singapore is no exception to that. A beautiful-smelling cup of this in a kopitiam (coffee shop) is made from Robusta beans roasted in a wok with butter, lard, or sugar, where it gets its exceptional caramelized aroma. Ordering this can get a little complicated too because you’d need to specify certain variations to your kopi―the kind of creamer (sugar or milk), the kind of milk (evaporated or condensed), consistency (thick or thin), and even the temperature (hot or iced). These specifications are, of course, met, and you can even enjoy your cup of kopi with a kaya (coconut jam) toast or a soft-boiled egg to experience a full Singaporean breakfast!
Want to try one of our favorite places outside of the region? Check out Chef Nora Haron’s (the director of culinary operations at the branch) Killiney Kopitiam located in Palo Alto to enjoy their freshly brewed kopi and other items familiar to Singaporeans such as curry chicken, laksa (spicy coconut milk-based noodle soup), and even bak kut teh (peppery pork rib soup)!
Kuala Lumpur is currently leading Malaysia’s coffee culture with its large, well-learned middle class, and coffee production may now be focused on, particularly considering the high global coffee prices.
They are famously known for their black kopi kaw which they are very much proud of. Made from bitter Liberica beans that have been dry roasted with butter or margarine, this concentrated black coffee has an extra-strong flavor―the bitter, the better. Indoor and open-air food establishments called mamak stalls brew black kopi kaw in a tubular-shaped cloth strainer and then add condensed or evaporated milk to soften its strong flavor. Of course, you can always opt to try its bitter version, to test your strength.
Here’s a list of some of the coolest and insta-worthy KL cafes:
- VCR in Bukit Bintang, KL
- Pulp by Papa Palheta in Bangsar, KL
- Merchant’s Lane in Jalan Petaling, Central KL
- Feeka Coffee Roasters in Jalan Mesui, Bukit Bintang, KL
When it comes to beverages, milk teas are still dominating the heart of most Thais, and the coffee culture in Thailand has only really started to brew over the last decade, although there is great coffee being produced in the areas around northern Thailand for 20 years now.
Despite this, you can already find good coffee in most of the country’s larger towns and cities, such as the northern city of Chiang Mai. There are already hundreds of coffee shops in this city brewing some good strong cold coffee, plus the street stalls that also serve delectable coffees in Thai-style. One of the most gossip-worthy coffee shops in Chiang Mai is Ristr8o. The place is well-known for its ristretto-based coffee. The first thing you'll notice about Ristr8o is the meticulous attention to detail: from the origins of your bean to the history of your preferred brewing method to the caffeine content of each drink! With this level of precision, one can only assume they are about to taste some of the world's finest coffee.
Even in spite of Thailand’s tropical climate, the locals have a way of enjoying coffee―through their esteemed oliang or iced coffee, brewed traditionally with a tung dtom kaffee, a Thai coffee filter with a grip, and a metal collar where a cloth bag is attached. They are usually served with a variety of milk or sweetening syrup.
Brewing of oliang using tung dtom kaffee
Finding yourself in Bangkok sometime soon? Check out La Mesa coffee in the high Sukhumvit, or head on over to old Chinatown for Chata or Long Tou, or stay central with Patom Organic Living in trendy Thonglor.
Indonesia’s coffee is very diverse. As a matter of fact, a third of the world’s coffee beans are produced here. Among these are kopi luwak and kopi tubruk or mud coffee―some of the most famous kinds of coffee in the country. Indonesian coffee is usually Robusta, brewed in an unwashed cloth pouch and roasted in a wok with corn kernels to develop its distinct savory flavor.
Kopi tubruk or mud coffee is Indonesia’s most famous brewing style, a cup of which usually marks the beginning of the day in the country. It is made with fine or medium ground coffee and water with a temperature a little below boiling point. If you prefer your kopi tubruk sweet, you can opt to add sugar. But wait before taking a sip of this coffee! It is left for a few minutes until the coffee grounds settle to the bottom of the mug. Then, enjoy!
Another brew from this country is kopi luwak, the most expensive coffee in the world. This is due to its unique brewing process, which involves the digestion of coffee beans by a type of animal called a civet at the start.
If you're interested in trying Indonesian coffee, we recommend visiting our favorite specialty coffee shop in the nation's capital, Washington, DC. Dua Coffee DC offers coffee-based drinks using single-origin beans from the different islands of Indonesia. Their beans not only have a unique story behind them but originate from a farm that practices ecologically sustainable coffee production. Those quality beans are then made into various signature beverages from recipes created by their very own baristas.
If it is good authentic coffee you seek, then you need not look any further than Vietnam. They are currently the second largest exporter of coffee, although their local consumption uses just 8% of the coffee beans they produce. They have a variation of coffee that use yogurt, eggs, and even fruit to create different flavors and experience.
Their Vietnamese egg coffee or cà phê trứng is a must-try! It uses whisked raw egg yolk to substitute milk which produces a thick creamy foam that forms on top of the coffee itself. This technique originated in the 1900s where milk scarcity took place for some time. Cà phê trứng is prepared by mixing egg yolks and milk using a whisk before adding it to the coffee. Sometimes, the egg yolks are mixed with coffee and condensed milk before separating the milk and coffee. Whatever version you choose to try, the fact remains that you’ll still end up satisfied with a creamy foamy smile on your lips!
Cộng Cà Phê in Hanoi is a one-of-a-kind cafe experience that you must have at least once while in Vietnam. The decor pays homage back to the times of old Communist-era Vietnam, which may seem strange to foreigners but elicits a pinch of nostalgia among city residents. While perusing the plethora of war-era paraphernalia and propaganda posters, you'll be able to sip on fantastic espresso-based beverages.
Coffee in Laos was brought by the French in the early 1900s. But for their good coffee, we also give credit to Laotian soil and weather which are especially just right for coffee growth. In fact, it rapidly became the biggest agricultural export in Laos, producing approximately 20,000 tons of coffee beans annually. The fact remains true today, and we can find some of the world’s finest coffee being grown in Southern Laos.
Le Banneton Café French Bakery is a staple in Luang Prabang and you can find yourself people watching all day in this architectural gem. Formula B or Ock Pop Tock Silk Road Cafe are some of Christy’s favorite. For all lovers of premium arabica and robusta coffees, Dao Coffee Company roasts some of the world's finest blends where coffee beans are grown on the Bolaven Plateau, which, due to its unique geographical position, produces high-quality produce and imparts a noteworthy flavor to the coffee.
The Philippines is one of the few countries that produces four kinds of coffee: Robusta, Arabica, Excelsa, and Liberica. This may be attributed to the country’s varied topography, rich soil conditions, and ranged climate. Although the coffee culture in the Philippines has not yet reached the levels of that of the other Southeast Asian countries due to factors like extreme weather conditions and rapid urbanization, it has come a long way by growing and cultivating a range of coffee varieties since the 18th century.
Sharing with you all the famous cafe by day, bar by night -- Hood Famous brings a taste of the Philippines to the heart of the International District. They are the only cafe in the region to serve coffee from across Asia-Pacific, including a rare coffee from Sitio-Belis Benguet in the Philippines. They insist on highlighting the stories, hard work, and relationships of farmers who produce high-quality coffee in their homeland and the greater Asia-Pacific region, as well as the ways they are improving their crops.
As another means of bringing high-quality coffee from the Philippines to Bakersfield, Umaga Café was established in January 2020 that highlights and offers quality, delicious Philippine-sourced coffee. As Bakersfield's first Filipino coffee shop, its mission is to provide a stylish, warm, and cozy local café where they can introduce flavors that the majority of Filipinos grow to love and enjoy.
In Cambodia, the day does not begin until a large cup of iced coffee is consumed in the morning to provide the must-needed caffeine boost. Small coffee carts are a common sight throughout the capital of Phnom Penh, from the bustling streets and side roads of the dusty tracks in the provinces' villages. Typically, the carts are pulled by motors or, more recently, converted tuk tuks.
Here are some of the great cafes to visit in Phnom Penh, Cambodia:
- Java Creative Cafe. The place is adorned with sculptures and numerous one-of-a-kind paintings.
- Vibe Cafe Asia. If you're looking for something completely remarkable, try Vibe's Spanish Bombom coffee, a delightful blend of espresso, cashew milk, homemade chocolate sauce, and cashew condensed milk.
- Artillery Cafe. Make sure to try their 100% organic Arabica coffee, which is sourced in Southeast Asia and roasted daily in the city.
- Treehouse Cafe. This lovely cafe is located directly across from Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, making it the ideal location for a cup of coffee before visiting the museum.
Cambodian coffee, like other coffees in Southeast Asia, is roasted using vegetable fat until it is nearly black. The beans are then manually ground to a fine powder, resulting in a dark, rich blend.
Myanmar has recently begun producing significant amounts of higher-quality Arabica coffee in addition to its traditional Robusta crop. Liberica and Excelsa, are also grown in the region. Around 80% of their coffee is grown by smallholder farmers using primitive processing methods. (For example, dry-processed coffee is coffee that has been dried in the cherry and then hulled by pounding).
Yangon, dubbed "The Garden City of the East," immediately left an impression on tourists with its lovely lakes, shady parks, and expansive gardens. If you want to experience a different side of Asia on your Burma tour, visit some coffee shops in Yangon:
- The Press Office Cafe. They combine western baking and barista techniques with native ingredients to create cakes and coffee that showcase the best of Myanmar's local producers.
- Craft Cafe. Serves 100% Arabica Coffee Beans grown in Myanmar and other parts of the world.
- Café Salween. Served locally-sourced coffee, and the cafe is an excellent place to experience various blends from around Myanmar.
What makes SE coffee unique?
Its brewing processes and exceptional look, smell, and flavor are some of what makes Southeast Asian coffee unique from all others. For instance, a wet method of processing called Giling Basah which means “wet-hulled” is specific to Indonesia and creates a signature flavor. Thailand, for another, incorporates both arabica coffee and robusta bean coffee. Robusta is grown in the south, while Arabica is grown in the north by Thai coffee farmers, making use of both shade and open sun, as well as intercropping, to grow coffee beans. Although the countries may have similar methods in processing coffee, the tastes of Southeast Asian coffees can vary widely based on their type of bean, soil, as well as the growing styles of individual farms.
Every country in Southeast Asia surely has a local coffee shop that is worth visiting for one to have a taste of their coffee culture.
The Workshop – Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam
You can have a sample of every coffee style here. This was the first specialty coffee roaster of Ho Chi Minh, and until today, it has been inspiring countless new cafes.
Yardstick – Manila, Philippines
Here you’ll find people with a burning passion for coffee, adding to the beautiful coffee scene in the city. You may also enjoy their delectable brews when you pair them with some wonderful waffles.
Giyanti Coffee Roastery – Jakarta, Indonesia
Starting from zero, when it started making its brews available for people in 2012, with only a tiny space behind a former Beauty Clinic, now Giyanti Coffee Roastery is one of the best coffee shops in Jakarta, with extremely experienced “roast masters” that are passionate about brewing and getting only the best beans.
The Little Red Fox Espresso – Siem Reap, Cambodia
Everything in here is as sustainable as possible because this Australian-owned and Cambodian-managed coffee shop sources only organic and chemical-free beans from Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. They have a very large range of brewing techniques which makes them a really great feature of Siem Reap.
We hope you learned a lot about the wonders and beauty of Coffee Culture in Southeast Asia. We're beyond excited to share our latest themed box: Coffee of Southeast Asia ❣ Shop now to see the deets and gift this to the coffee lover in your life!