It’s the week-long runup to National Day, with all that it entails – patriotic songs blaring in every mall, a spider’s web of bunting stretched across every residential neighbourhood, the occasional celebratory event in the heartlands. En route to visiting Lau Wang, I stumble into the thick of it. There’s a big grassroots party in the community square just outside the eatery, all red-shirted organisers and secondary school cadets in ill-fitting parade uniforms and the local Zumba club grooving to blink-182 (oh, if only this was a joke). If I had no compelling reason to stay, I’d be fleeing in a trice.
But there is a compelling reason to stay. Because even as the air throbs with music and oddly accented emcee talk, another sort of hecticness is taking place at Lau Wang, as it probably does every evening. Diners packed cheek-by-jowl on plastic stools in the damp heat. A complex ordering procedure, where you pay when you get the drinks, then call out your own orders, which are then written down on a whiteboard. The roaring heat of the kitchen, flashes of yellow as a pot is lifted and the flames lick out after it.
Lau Wang has some history behind it – even though they’ve only recently settled in their current venue, taking over an entire small coffeeshop, they’ve been open for three decades. That’s a lot of time to figure out a workable formula. The menu looks a lot longer than it really is; many dishes are variations of each other, different ingredients cooked in the same sauce, and it all comes in claypots or cast-iron pots, still boiling on the table, bubbling away. It sounds promising. And it definitely looks promising.
With their history comes a certain stability, a roster of staples, and the sesame oil chicken is the most prominently advertised. It doesn’t disappoint. The dish announces itself on arrival with an intense, sweet-smoky aroma; small boneless chunks of chicken float in a deep brown gravy, slightly sticky, begging to be poured on rice. Here, the sesame oil is tightly merged with the gravy instead of floating forlornly on top of it, embracing the savoury ginger and spring onion sauce. I’m just surprised it took them 15 minutes to serve this, because the chicken definitely has not been cooked that long – it’s well-timed, suffused with warm flavour.
Sambal kangkong is not usually served in a pot, and that’s not the only variation either. Lau Wang tones down the spiciness somewhat, an initial hit that quickly tails off; behind it, and more lasting, is the aroma of plenty of minced garlic, and below that the undeniable flavour of belacan. The resulting gravy is rather oilier than the sesame oil chicken, but still rich and compatible with the fluffy white rice. Kangkong is thoroughly cleaned of grit, which is a lot more than one can expect from many places, and it seems they’ve chosen the finer, younger stalks specifically; crunchy and slurpy, their natural flavour is brought out rather than covered by the powerful sauce.
All the while as I’m eating, the show is going on, and a group of journalists and civil servants are sitting next to me at the communal table discussing the organisation of the party and the guests who will be descending upon the throng. And since it is National Day week and all the patriotic music has softened my brain somewhat, it got me thinking – which of these bursts of activity is more emblematic, contains more of the essence, of Singapore?
A rhetorical question, of course – Lau Wang is intense yet homely, its flavours familiar but no less satisfying for their familiarity. It’s got sound and fury, but behind that it’s got the goods too. The auntie who serves me the food brings two bowls of rice, thinking I’ve ordered for two; when I ask for both, she wonders aloud if I have the appetite. Oh, auntie – for the stuff you’re serving, I definitely do.
Lau Wang Claypot Delights
263 Serangoon Central
Hours: Daily, 10 AM – 10 PM (closed fortnightly on Tuesday)