Ambuyat: Delight or Disgust?

Ambuyat will delight you or disgust you.

It has the power to excite you, or to threaten your constitution. Violent physical reactions can result from the mere memory of the food.

Ambuyat is the only uniquely Bruneian contribution to international cuisine. It is also found, under various names, in the Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, which share the island of Borneo with Brunei.

Popular Bruneian food is essentially Malay. Most Bruneians are Malay, and this is reflected in their language, customs and cuisine. Ambuyat, however, is uniquely Bruneian.

What is it, and why does it repulse or delight people?

Ambuyat is a gooey, runny colourless and tasteless substance which is placed in a bowl in the centre of the communal table, and extracted with a bamboo fork called ‘chandas’. Non-Bruneians like me are known to struggle to attach the ambuyat to the chandas. Ambuyat has the consistency and texture of the substance that starts in the nose, travels through the throat and is expelled via the mouth – much to the disgust of onlookers.

Bruneians love it.

Ambuyat is not the extent of the dish, though. The table is filled with other meat and vegetable stews, such as Tempoyak sauce. The ambuyat is dipped into the sauces, and these provide the taste to the dish. The stews and sauces can be delicious and even quite spicy. The issue for many non-Bruneians is not the taste but the texture of the ambuyat, the feeling of it running down your throat is like being forced to swallow the substance which starts in your nose…

If you can force it down, you can savour the taste of the accompanying sauces.

Can’t I just eat the sauces alone?

You could, but then you’re not eating ambuyat, and not immersing yourself in the cultural experience. It would be cheating.

What is it made of?

Ambuyat comes from the interior trunk of the sago palm. The dish is compared to tapioca starch, and to okra. It is relatively easy to prepare. Take the starch powder and add some water, before stirring. Then prepare the sauces for dipping.

What makes Ambuyat even more appealing is that it can be served with a side of durian, a fruit so smelly it is banned from public transport in countries like Singapore.

A Bruneian friend had ‘encouraged’ me to try it, just as I’d encouraged my friend to try vegemite. Our respective reactions were similar.

I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t force down more than one or two mouthfuls. My friend was initially put out, before declaring with glee:

“All the more for me!”

Image: http://www.bruneitourism.com

Run the red light.

Run that red light. Speed. Ignore the road rules and never sit in traffic. Do it all. Get away with it, day after day after day…

You’d love to wouldn’t you. You could, if you were the Sultan of Brunei.

In his tiny, oil-rich Sultanate at the top of Borneo, the Sultan and his family never stop at a red light or obey any of the road rules that are imposed upon every other occupant of the South-East Asian nation. The Sultan drives gleefully behind two police outriders who clear traffic from his path and assure him safe passage.

The police motorbikes speed into traffic with sirens blaring, and gesture violently to every motorist to pull over- immediately. Drivers screech and swerve to the side of the road in an attempt to stop just 100 metres after the arrival of the police, lest they incur the wrath of the royals.

Motorists are more scared of the government than they are of crashing.

The Sultan and his family then fly past with their foot firmly planted on the accelerator. Danger matters not to the omnipotent ruler. His outriders clear traffic from expressways even when that sends motorists into the path of merging traffic. The police part motorists as Moses parted the red sea, and the Sultan’s loyal disciples obey.

If they don’t?

For a Bruneian, the consequences could be disastrous. The Sultan controls every aspect of their lives and could easily cut financial support. Malay Bruneians essentially exist on a subsidised lifestyle and a welfare system disguised as public service employment. Locals get out of the Sultan’s way.

For expats?

That’s easier. The government could cancel their work visa and give them 48 hours to leave the country. Expats get out of the way.

Do Bruneians resent the Sultan?

They don’t appear to. They gaze respectfully at their glorious leader as he smiles and waves back from behind the tinted windows of his bullet-proof black Mercedes SUV.

Does it cause accidents?

Yes, but no more than the everyday driving habits of Bruneians. Locals speed, tailgate and fail to indicate. They nurse their kids on their laps while driving and use their phones. They let their kids run around the car without seatbelts. They don’t understand merging and they honk like mad if they’re made to wait half a second after a traffic light turns green, even though they have nowhere important to be – there’s not much to do in Brunei. This despite the fact that honking the horn is considered very rude in Brunei.

Another peculiarity of Bruneian motorists is their habit of waiting in the shade. They will seek out any form of shade while waiting at the traffic lights, even if it’s a full 15 metres back from the lights. Brunei is always hot. If you’re four or five cars behind the person in the shade, you might miss the green light altogether. Furthermore, every Bruneian knows someone who has been badly injured or killed in a road accident, but this doesn’t alter their behaviour. The Sultan is just setting a good example.

Strangely, Bruneians also run out of petrol a lot. Strange because Brunei is a very small country and one end of the country to the other is only a two hour drive. Strange too because petrol is cheap. It’s an oil nation. Cars are often abandoned at the road side with a small branch sticking out of the window – the universal sign of an empty tank.

What about the police?

The police rarely enforce road rules on a daily basis in Brunei. Police exist to serve the royal family.

What happens when the royals travel?

What happens when they go overseas? How do they react when they’re forced to wait at a red light or sit in traffic? They must go mad. It must frustrate them enormously, or remind them that they are big fish in a very, very small sea.

Once the Sultan has flown by, the outriders trailing his car give motorists permission to resume driving. This causes more potential carnage as drivers set off without indicating or waiting for other drivers. Worse still, some canny locals will speed after the Sultan’s entourage like loyal devotees following Moses.

Next time you’re tempted to run a red light, remember you’re not the Sultan of Brunei.

Image: Ulvi Safari