Breakfast quest in Singapore: Looking for history on toast

Breakfast may or may not be the most important meal of the day, but it’s often our most vulnerable, especially when we travel. Barely awake, we reach for what’s familiar when the world around us is not. When I’m far from home in a time zone 12 hours or more away, I work with rather than against jet lag, and break fasts with foreign feasts.

When I visited Singapore in 2013, I went on a quest for a kaya toast set, the rich national breakfast dish of charcoal-toasted bread, pandan coconut jam, butter, sweetened condensed milk coffee and soft-cooked eggs. But first I consulted a doctor. Not to get my heart checked because of the fatty foods to come, but because the doctor in question is author, photographer and family medicine physician Leslie Tay, the man behind the food blog I Eat I Shoot I Post.

His blog guided me to some of the oldest coffee houses in the futuristic Southeast Asian city-state-island country that’s roughly halfway between China and Australia. Coffee, toast and eggs are all familiar elements, but add a few details honed by history, and the results are alchemical.

Kaya is a pale green, sweet, coconut-milk jam infused with pandan leaves, which impart color and herbaceous flavor. The eggs, always a pair and scarcely soft-cooked, may be served in the shell or cracked in a small bowl, then seasoned with dark soy sauce and ground white pepper. The strong black coffee hides a layer of sweetened condensed milk at the bottom of the cup.

The story of the origin of the kaya toast set claims Hainanese Chinese galley hands adapted the foods they served aboard British ships when they landed in Singapore and neighboring Malaysia into the kopi tiam culture. Kopi is Malay for coffee, and tiam is Hokkien for shop, an early evolution for this multicultural society.

“There are two basic forms really,” Tay said. “One, thin toast, and the other, thick toast.” We spoke recently by phone while he was between patients, my morning and his night.

“At the original Killiney Kopitiam on Killiney Road, they still make their own kaya,” Tay said. “At the original Ya Kun on China Street, they’re still grilling the bread over charcoal. These two are good choices.” Both shops have multiple locations, including the airport.

Traditionally, the dense-crumb white bread is grilled over charcoal, then served already spread and buttered. The original Killiney Kopitiam is the oldest coffee shop in Singapore, established in 1919 as Kheng Hoe Heng Coffeeshop. It grills thick slices of bread, then studs the kaya with squares of cold butter, which soften quickly from the warm toast and the perpetual tropical heat and humidity.

The original location of Ya Kun is of the thin-crust school of kaya, and the butter is laid as wide-planed shavings.

“It’s best when you toast your bread over charcoal for that flavor,” Tay said. “When you bite in, it has to be crunchy toast and cold butter.

“Then you have the coffee. Traditionally the beans are roasted with margarine and sugar. You can try adding a little butter to your coffee to get that flavor. The eggs are perfect when the white is still soft.”

To eat, you dip your kaya toast into the eggs, to meld the sweet and savory, soft and crunchy.

Has the good doctor ever made a full kaya toast set himself? “Oh, no,” he said, “It’s a lot of trouble, isn’t it? And it’s so cheap to get here.”

How are these old kopitiams able to survive Singapore’s modernization? “I don’t think they will,” Tay said. “Someday they’ll all be gone.”

If that happens, perhaps with some practice, we’ll have perfected our own kaya toast set recipes.

The set is a collection of recipes. You spread kaya jam on toast, add butter, then dip that into soft-cooked eggs while drinking kopi coffee. Here’s how to do it.

Kaya Jam

Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 15 minutes

Makes: About 3/4 cup

This kaya jam recipe is adapted from Byron Shoh, who was making kaya when I visited his Good Morning Nanyang Cafe in Singapore. (It has since closed.) Look for pandan leaves, which are very long and narrow, at Asian grocery stores.

4 large eggs

1/3 cup coconut milk

1/2 cup packed light brown sugar

About 4 fresh pandan leaves

Heat a medium saucepan of water to a simmer. Crack eggs into a medium heatproof bowl; stir until yolks are just broken. Stir in coconut milk, then the sugar. Twist and crush each pandan leaf all along the entire length, wrapping the leaves together in a circle as you go. Add them to mixture, submerging as much as possible. Place bowl over barely simmering water; cook, stirring frequently, until custard coats back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Remove leaves. Your kaya jam will be chunky and lumpy. Set aside to cool completely.

Kaya toast: Use pain de mie, Pullman bread, ciabatta or any good white sandwich bread. You will want 2 slices per person. Slice your bread thick or thin. Toast over charcoal, in a grill pan or toaster. Let toast cool slightly. Spread 1 slice with kaya jam. Slice cold butter thick or thin to taste, then lay butter on other toast slice. Press kaya jam slice over butter slice, then serve immediately. You want to bite into cold slices of butter.

Kopi coffee: Add sweetened condensed milk and butter to a small cup to taste; then add strong, smooth coffee and serve immediately. (Good cold-brew coffee has a very similar flavor to “kopi o,” the Singapore slang for traditional black coffee).

Soft-cooked eggs: Count on 2 eggs per person. Use a saucepan large enough to hold eggs in a single layer. Add enough water to cover eggs; heat just until the water boils. Remove pot from heat, then add whole eggs carefully; cover and let sit to cook, 5 minutes. Remove eggs from pot. Crack 2 soft-cooked eggs into one bowl per person. Serve with dark soy sauce and ground white pepper, so that diners can season to taste.