Chris Step into any kopitiam on a Saturday morning, and you’ll find a buzz in the air, fueled by the rich smell of eggs, toast, and coffee.
What is the flavor of home? What is the flavor of Singapore? Singapore has plenty of national dishes: Hainanese chicken rice, laksa, chilli crab, roti prata, rojak. A former student now living in Japan craves char kway teow from a stall in the Alexandra Village Food Centre. I recently ate there and sent him a photo. He begged me to keep the place in business until he returns. I think he misses that char kway teow more than he misses me.
Singapore has many national dishes, but if there is a national breakfast, it’s eggs, toast, and coffee. Three simple elements that constitute the flavor of home for many Singaporeans, both here and overseas.
I’m Chris McMorran, a professor at the National University of Singapore, and you’re listening to Home on the Dot, the podcast about the power and meanings of home in today’s world, all through the stories and lives of my students.
Every year when I get students to talk about home, the conversation inevitably turns to food. From grandma’s homemade soup to cakes baked by a favorite aunt, or noodles from their neighborhood hawker centre, they connect food with the daily routines, cherished memories, and important relationships that build a sense of belonging and the feeling of home.
But when they’re away from Singapore for too long, the thought — of a particular dish can instantly transport them home — or make them long for Singapore. A few years ago a student who had spent some time studying in China said that the thing he missed the most, the thing that reminded him most of this little red dot called Singapore, was a shop called Ya Kun. Like many of the topics for this podcast, I didn’t get the connection to home right away. Really? I thought. What is so special about Ya Kun? Isn’t it just another chain of coffee shops that serve eggs, toast and coffee? The most basic breakfast.
I thought a millennial wouldn’t go for its over-the-top nostalgic vibe, trying to recreate a 1940s coffee shop. But when he was overseas he craved that simple breakfast, and he was thrilled to find a Ya Kun branch in Shanghai. As he stepped into the shop and smelled those three familiar elements, he was temporarily home.
This week on Home on the Dot, Ya Kun, globalization, and the flavor of home. Stay tuned.
Ruby For some, the flavour of home is eggs, toast, and coffee. Three simple ingredients that mean the world to Singaporeans.
Chris That’s Ruby, a recent graduate with a degree in Geography, describing my ideal Saturday brunch.
Ruby You begin with 2 soft boiled eggs, cooked to perfection. Any longer, it will be overcooked. Any less, it will still be raw.
Chris Honestly, I find the eggs too runny. They’re not raw, but they’re not as done as the eggs on an eggs Benedict, which is the consistency I prefer. I always ask the staff at Ya Kun to let mine sit an extra 30 seconds in hot water.
Ruby Little plastic containers of pepper and dark soy sauce are available to season the eggs according to your taste.
Chris I might be breaking some rule here, but I don’t use these at all. The eggs are already perfect!
Ruby Next, there is the toast. Two slices of perfectly toasted bread sandwiched around a rectangular slab of butter and kaya jam.
Chris Oh my gosh – kaya! Made of coconut, eggs, sugar, and pandan leaf, it’s the smoothest, richest custardy spread you can imagine. How did I live so long without you? It’s like a 40-year old tasting peanut butter for the first time and awakening taste buds they didn’t even know they had.
Ruby Lastly, a hot beverage – local Nanyang style coffee, or tea, or Milo.
Chris I am a “kopi siew dai” person myself. Strong hot coffee with no condensed milk and less sugar. My wife always gets “teh, less sweet” – tea with evaporated milk and less sugar. But this is the beauty of this combination: three simple elements that can be infinitely altered to suit everyone’s tastes.
Ruby Eggs, toast, coffee. Three simple ingredients. This is the breakfast found in every kopitiam in Singapore. And for many people, this is the taste of home. The word kopitiam captures some of Singapore’s cultural and linguistic diversity. It is made up of words from two different languages. Kopi is a Malay word for ‘coffee’. Tiam is the word for ‘shop’ in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect still spoken widely in Singapore and parts of Asia. So kopitiam literally means coffee shop. But it is not like a coffee shop in the West that just sells coffee, tea, muffins, and pastries. A kopitiam is the generic name we give to a set of stalls clustered on the ground floor of a HDB building.
In the first episode of Season 2 — Hooray for the Void — we talked about the ground floor of public housing blocks that is often open space – called void decks. But some also have food stalls that sell noodles, rice dishes, Indian cuisine, Malay food, and more. Importantly, there is always a drinks stall at the kopitiam that sells coffee and other beverages. And in the mornings it sells a “toast set” or a “traditional toast set” or the “set A” or whatever it might be called. Eggs, toast, and coffee.
Let me paint you a picture of a kopitiam.
It is 7am on a Saturday. Amidst the bustling breakfast crowd, a father in a singlet and slippers sits with his 4-year-old daughter. She sits carefully on stacked chairs, barely reaching the table. In front of them, is a set of eggs and toast. The father cracks open the eggs into a shallow dish, revealing their wobbly, translucent whites. Then, he encourages his daughter to season it with some pepper and soy sauce. She does it gingerly, unsure when her father will say “stop!”. Next, they take a bite of the toast, savoring the taste of cold butter and fragrant kaya. For the next piece, they dipped it into the runny egg. In between bites of toast, the father sips on his coffee and helps the child with her milo — a hot chocolatey drink — in a ceramic cup too heavy for her small hands.
This was me when I was 4. This is my first clear memory of enjoying this breakfast. Now that he is gone, this is a treasured memory of my time with him.
Chris Over the years this simple breakfast has been standardised by several companies, including Toast Box and Ya Kun.
Ya Kun was founded in 1944 by Hainanese immigrant Loi Ah Kun, who began as an assistant in a coffee stall like those still found scattered among HDB blocks and food centres. Soon he started his own stall with fellow Chinese immigrants in Telok Ayer. He later moved his shop to Lau Pa Sat and then Far East Square, before finally franchising for the first time in 2000.
Today, the company is still managed by his family, but it has expanded to 55 locations throughout Singapore and dozens more beyond the island’s shores. It’s a visible example of globalization by a Singaporean company. It is here that Ya Kun has the potential to not only reach new markets, but also remind Singaporeans of home, through that magical combination of eggs, toast, and coffee.
Ruby As a chain, Ya Kun standardizes more than the food. It also standardizes the design of every outlet.
Every shop is decorated with the same white marble tables and dark, wooden stools. The floor is lined with wooden planks. Plus, every hot drink comes in the same thick ceramic mug, just as it used to. No matter where you go, every Ya Kun looks the same. And it’s often a stark contrast with its surroundings. Many Ya Kun branches around Singapore are in shopping malls, with their shiny, polished floors and walls of glass for window shopping. The contrast is extreme and intentional.
Ong Chin Ee I think it reminds people of home in two ways.
Ruby To understand how Ya Kun links to home, and how it can make a grown man cry in Shanghai, I spoke with Professor Ong Chin Ee, a cultural geographer at NUS who recently moved to Sun Yat-Sen University in China. I took a module with him and learned a lot about the relationships between culture and space. He is an expert on cultural heritage who grew up in Singapore and lived most of his life here. He also spent his fair share of mornings at Ya Kun.
Ong Chin Ee One, the actual food itself as a signifier for the culture, so you relate the kaya toast and the half-boiled egg with, you know, home itself and experiences of home.
Ruby For those who grew up in Singapore or lived here for many years, the iconic soft-boiled eggs, kaya toast, and kopi or pulled tea are a clear example of Singapore’s rich food culture.
Ong Chin Ee The other one, would be the setting itself. So the setting, is even in a shopping mall a context for Ya Kun, created in a nostalgic way, in which old furniture, or new furniture, made to look old, were actually used.
Ruby In other words, the company goes out of its way to use old-fashioned furniture and dishes to remind people of Singapore’s history and culture.
Ong Chin Ee And I think it does remind people and connect to people of various generations, whether it is an older generation who have actually experienced the older coffee shop setting in which in the case of Ya Kun, the founder of the chain used to operate by the roadside, used to operate in non air-conditioned shophouses, very basic shop setting. To a younger generation who perhaps have experienced Ya Kun as a kind of shopping mall kind of eatery – for both of these groups, I think it does remind Singaporeans of home.
Chris Ya Kun uses design to inspire nostalgia for 1940s and 50s coffee shops among older customers. For younger folks like my students, the food alone reminds them of the simple breakfast eaten around the country every day. One of my students even pointed out that these days, with a boom in hipster cafes around Singapore, Ya Kun is one of the few places that her parents feel comfortable getting a coffee. Plus, her family all has different food tastes, but they can still share breakfast at Ya Kun.
But what happens to this routine when one is away from home? Beyond Singapore’s shores, one can still spot Ya Kun’s maroon storefront in one of 100 outlets in nine countries across Asia, and the company aims to continue expanding.
For Singaporeans living abroad, this unique blend of runny eggs, toast with kaya jam and butter, and strong coffee taste like home. It reminds them of spending time with family, and sharing breakfast at the kopitiam in their neighborhoods or even at the mall. It’s not the only flavor of home — in recent years restaurants have opened in places like Tokyo and New York selling another Singaporean favorite: chicken rice — but the kopitiam breakfast is definitely the flavor of home for many.
The spread of Ya Kun outside Singapore is evidence of the globalisation of food and foodways, but according to Prof Ong changes to food are inevitable, regardless of globalisation.
Ong Chin Ee Food cultures will change, whether or not globalisation is happening. So say for instance, even if globalisation is not really happening within cultures, the egg and toast will change. The type of kaya used will change, whether or not people like more kaya or less kaya. Health trends, right, will change. New types of toasts probably will be created, but of course, with globalisation, you throw a whole different dimension to things, so I think the kinds of food that my generation of Singaporeans relate to, and what the teenagers in Singapore relate to today are very different. What we need to be careful is to always remember that food cultures, like all culture, is dynamic, and is alive, and we should not seek to mummify it.
So to say for instance, if we do want to conserve some form of coffee shop, kopitiam culture, what we can do, is to try to document the original recipes, using videos, and also other textual sources, oral history interviews with the people involved, to really capture what they did. But we should not suppress other forms of kopitiam cultures or coffee cultures or cafe cultures from emerging. And yeah, that would be my take on this.
Ruby This makes me wonder – are eggs, toast, and coffee the only reminder of home?
Ya Kun has successfully recreated the Singaporean eggs, toast and coffee experience by ensuring that both food and atmosphere are the same in every stall around the world. But standardisation also means the flavour of home might be limited to a few dishes. And like Prof Ong says, this could lead to the mummification of Singaporean food. Singapore’s diverse food culture may potentially be misrepresented as one that only consists of eggs, toast, and coffee, when in reality, there are so many other breakfast options, like char kway teow, laksa, nasi lemak and more.
I spent part of my childhood at my parents’ vegetarian food stall, located in a kopitiam nestled between blocks of HDB flats, a wet market, and some other shops. In Singapore and the wider Southeast Asia region, Buddhists are vegetarians on the first and fifteenth day of the lunar calendar. On days like this and on weekends, my parents’ stall would be busy. They served vegetarian versions of local delights such as mee rebus (a Malay dish made of noodles) and bee hoon (rice vermicelli with cabbage, gluten and fried beancurd sheets). My brother and I would help my parents, along with my grandparents and one other employee. It could get really crowded in the stall during times like this – seven people squeezed into a stall that constantly churned out hot dishes, in the tropical heat. We ate our breakfast and lunch at the table right outside the stall. Such meals are often a hurried affair on busy days – we try to eat when there are fewer customers but sometimes, the crowd can be unpredictable and we would have to quickly finish our meals and head back into the stall.
I don’t have a food item that I particularly associate with home. What reminds me of home the most, is the experience of eating food from my parents’ stall. And this to me, is the flavour of home.
Chris Ya Kun is a Singapore original. But the connection between home and food is universal.
Wherever we humans go, we bring along the flavors of home. Sometimes we reinforce connections between a particular food and a specific place called home, potentially mummifying that cuisine. Other times we inspire a fusion of flavors that creates something new. This is the dual nature of globalisation. And in other cases, we arrive in new places, find new foods and make them our own. And along the way, they help us create a sense of belonging in that new home.
A common breakfast food in the US is a donut, but I would never say it reminds me of home, the way the eggs, toast and coffee at Ya Kun do for Singaporeans. So I was surprised last year when an exchange student from the US suggested just that. When given the opportunity to write about any object that symbolized home for her, Jennifer chose donuts.
The reason was simple: she grew up in a donut shop. Her parents were refugees from Cambodia who settled in Southern California. With little education, no English, and little money, their work options were limited. As historian Erin Curtis has noted, donut shops offered a solution for many of these Chinese Cambodian refugees in the area. They required little start-up cost and could be run by a single family for a small profit.
Jennifer’s was one of those families, and she practically grew up in the shop, listening to the mixer spinning, placing donuts in the display case, and eventually operating the cash register. Her parents worked long days and always put the donuts first, working weekends and weekdays, and taking off only two days a year. As she got older, Jennifer sometimes resented the donuts, as they prevented her from enjoying the same home life experienced by her friends. She often had to come straight home from school to work in the shop, and she spent many weekends selling donuts instead of having fun like her friends. Only later did she realize the sacrifices her parents had made and the debt she owes to the donut. Those donuts anchored her family into the community and gave them a place in their new home.
This episode was written and produced by Ruby Ang. Our sound engineers were Johann Tan and David Chew. Special thanks go to Dr Ong Chin Ee for sharing his insights on cultural heritage and globalization.
To find out more about the Home on the Dot project, please visit our blog, where we also have transcripts of all our episodes, photos of Ya Kun, and links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot.
Thank you for listening.