August 13, 2020

Strutting down the empty hallways of National Gallery wasn’t initially part of my National Day plans. But since August 9 fell on a Sunday, and it was coincidentally the second week that Violet Oon Singapore had launched their Sunday Popiah Party, I made it my agenda to visit the National Kitchen. Roused by the melange of homegrown flavours and the possibility of witnessing the evening’s fireworks from the verandah, I donned my Sunday best—a white blouse that was susceptible to rempah sauce. Violet, the ever magnanimous host of this outlandishly opulent “house party” decorated by cascading chandeliers, was there to greet us. Radiant with benevolent pleasure, she opted for elbow bumps like the cool popo you wished you had, and assured us that our voracious appetites would be well taken care of by the wait staff.

The popiah platter was an easy win: a smorgasbord of fresh skins, bamboo and jicama stew, prawns, julienned egg strips, Chinese lap cheong, beansprouts, coriander, deep-fried garlic and more. Even the dried sole fish grounded into powder packs a punch. The family settled into the niceties of it right away, as if it were second nature, taking responsibility for their own roll with an eagle eye. I might have added a bit too much Chinese sausage and coriander in mine, but that’s what you do when you’re surrounded by family. However, I suggest you approach the roll like you would a burrito. If you don’t want to dirty your fingers, feel free to tear awkwardly through the skin with a fork and spoon. It’s fine. No need to get stressed out over the proper way to eat popiah; the world provides plenty of opportunities as it is.

There are a couple of new dishes on the National Kitchen menu that prove that seafood can be part of the Nyonya festivities. But be forewarned, they do require a little bit of heat tolerance. The sotong rempah titek, albeit spicy, was beautifully balanced by the tender ribbons of squid stuffed with minced chicken and prawn. While the udang chilli padi lemak deserved an honourable mention: plump prawns enrobed in piquant coconut-laden gravy, infused with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaf tantalised the tastebuds. Regardless of family hierarchy, try your utmost best to score an extra shrimp.

If meat is your vice, do not pass up on the daging chabek beef cheek. It looked like a stoic block at first, but once poked and prodded, melted on the palate like a Potong stick on a hot day. As for the dry laksa, you would be kicking yourself if you did not order it. Oodles of noodles roughened with fragrant rempah were smoothened out and dressed in coconut cream, topped with the usual suspects. Your snobbiness towards a non-soup version of this hawker staple is your loss—and my gain.

The meal was interrupted with a quick trip to the verandah where the National Day fireworks just beyond the Padang were in plain sight. That really was the icing on the cake. And speaking of cake, National Kitchen’s old-time favourite (reinstated) felt like a reincarnation of my grandma’s sherry trifle. Surrounded by a ring of vanilla custard cream, the pineapple upside-down cake was a kitschy classic complete with a maraschino cherry. Each bite was comforting and addicting, as I had expected.

If you take into account Singapore’s Peranakan heritage, I couldn’t have asked for a more culturally significant way to celebrate the nation’s 55th birthday. And the steady flow of young clientele flowing in from the parade grounds after the spectacle probably harboured the same thoughts as me.