Located at Block 10 on North Bridge Road is Heap Seng Leong, a traditional coffeehouse whose authenticity in both its decor and coffee has made it an important icon in understanding the beginnings of Singapore’s coffee history.
Over here, you won’t find a $10,000 coffee machine or a barista who provides you with latte art. Instead, the uncle clad in his singlet and pyjamas, serves up his specialty of kopi gu you (butter coffee) accompanied by two slices of kaya-butter toast for a reasonable price of $2.30.
In place of latte art you will find a swirl of butter (probably the sinful planta brand) on the surface of your coffee. For the health conscious, the sight of it may make you think twice about having a sip, but then again the toffeenut latte at Starbucks contains 900 calories, so I say, just give it a shot.
To be the honest the taste of the coffee isn’t that much different from a normal kopi (coffee with milk and sugar), except for a slight aftertaste of butter that did make me feel a little queasy after half a cup.
Interestingly, the idea of coffee with butter started way back in the pre-war days when Hainanese coffeeshops were a mainstay. Many believed that adding a slab of butter to their coffee not only provided an extra dose of energy, but also helped soothe the throat as butter was seen as a cooling food while coffee was deemed a “heaty” one.
Even up till today, the common coffee powder used at the many neighbourhood coffeeshops are still either roasted or fried with butter or margarine before being grounded.
Yet the best thing about drinking your kopi gu you at Heap Seng Leong is an appreciation for how the place has withstood the test of time. The walls are stained with soot as no air vents are installed; a coin-operated payphone sits beside plastic snack containers, and the customers all seem to happy to chat for hours at a time with regulars who walk into the stall looking for their daily fix of coffee just the way they’ve always liked it.