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:
The staff meeting this afternoon is compulsory. It is expected to last for about three hours and it will cover the implementation of the new IT program and resources. All staff must be confident in the use of the new software and to integrate it into every aspect of their work. Staff do not need to bring their own devices to the meeting, but will need to install and run the new software on their devices, so attendance at the meeting is very important. If any staff member has other plans or commitments this afternoon, please cancel those commitments or communicate your absence, and the reason for that absence, to your Head of Department, before arrange for an alternative time to undertake the training. Could all staff ensure they arrive promptly so that the training can begin at precisely 3.30pm.
The staff filed in at 3.20, 3.25. They found a seat, deposited their notebooks, phones and pens, then made their way to the buffet. Rice, noodles, beef, chicken, stew…cupcakes, biscuits.
At 3.30pm, they began eating.
Eventually the meeting began, at some point after 3.30pm.
Parcels can be collected between 9am and 12pm, and then from 1pm to 4pm. This includes international parcels. Please be advised that parcels will not be issued outside of these hours, and that all parcels can only be given to the recipient after passing through every stage of inspection, including customs, which takes place at the central post office. Appointments may not be made. Recipients may only arrive at the post office during official hours and take a number. Remember to bring multiple forms of valid identification, and dress accordingly. Women must wear modest clothing and men must wear long pants. Men with long hair below the collar will not be served, in line with official government policy. Flip flops are not acceptable, neither are singlets or torn clothing. Standards of acceptable clothing are at the discretion of the postal staff.
Recipients rushed to reach the post office between 12.30 and 1pm. They took a seat, and duly waited for numbered tickets to become available. Then they waited. 12.30, 12.35, 12.40. Nervous eyes twitched before focussing on the prized ticket dispenser. 12.45, 12.50. The redundant ceiling fans squeaked in a forlorn attempt to dissipate the stifling tropical heat. 12.55, 1pm. Recipients rose to grab their prized ticket.
Staff waited, and took another mouthful. 1.05. Staff waited, and took another sip, under the gaze of the recipients. 1.10. Staff digested their lunch and chatted nonchalantly with their colleagues. 1.15, recipients grew impatient. 1.20, staff started dessert while the hordes waited hungrily for their parcels.
Sometime after 1.30, staff wiped their plates clean, dabbed the corners of their mouths and strolled over to the ticket dispenser.
Students mulled around the basketball court, as teenagers do. Dressed in their sport uniforms and their best running shoes, they waited with nerves, excitement, trepidation or reluctance for the start of the school fun run. About 5km was the estimate. No one really knew how far it would be. No one expected to have to ratify world records with the IAAF, so it didn’t really matter. Something else mattered.
The school had a coloured house system, but most students didn’t know much about it, nor what house they were in. It was even harder to tell when every student was wearing exactly the same school sports uniform, of exactly the same colour. Long sleeve sports shirt for boys and girls, tracksuit pants for boys. Tracksuit pants or leggings for girls, plus appropriate head dress in line with religious and cultural mores.
Mulling continued, in the playground and in the staff room.
Eventually the sports teachers stirred. A warm up must be conducted before any vigorous physical activity could take place. Thus, a CD was thrust into the player, and dance music floated across the school via the speakers.
Students filed over to the basketball courts and followed the teachers in their warm up. Boys less so than girls, but smiles found their way onto everyone’s faces eventually. Zumba over, the fun run could now take place. Ready, set…NO.
Something else mattered.
How can we tally house points if students are all wearing the same colours?
Ummmm – how about we pin a piece of coloured fabric onto the shirt of every student in the school? So they did.
The benefits of the warm up were starting to wear off, though ‘warm up’ was a pejorative term in the incessant tropical heat. Warm up completed; fabric affixed, now they could start the race. Not yet.
Teachers returned to the staffroom and heard their assignments – marshalling, first aid, water station, timekeepers…done.
Now there was nothing impeding the start of the highly-anticipated fun run. Ready, set…NO.
The aroma of heavy, fried, fatty, salty food wafted through the windows of the staffroom to the basketball court, to be inhaled by the students who were just about to set off on a gut-busting 5km run in stifling heat and humidity.
The teachers piled their plates with rice, noodles, stew and other tasty treats.
Disposable coffee cups should be banned for customers who chose to dine in at cafes and other food outlets. Disposable coffee cups are destroying the natural environment and are completely unnecessary for customers who dine in, and should be reserved only for takeaway beverages.
They’re not necessary. An alternative exists, and that alternative is superior. Furthermore, banning disposable cups for customers who dine in is a small, practical, reasonable and achievable initiative which could make a real difference to the amount of waste sent to landfill.
Use a mug, don’t be a mug…
Coffee mugs were designed specifically to hold coffee or tea. Ceramic mugs can be reused time and time again, and dine in customers enjoyed their tea and coffee long before the advent of disposable cups.
Disposable cups are single use items. Just like single use plastic bags, they are contributing massively to landfill and to the destruction of the environment throughout the world. There is an alternative to single use plastic bags, just as there is an alternative to disposable coffee cups for customers who know they will consume their beverage at the café.
Single use plastic bags have been banned in many parts of the world. Disposable coffee cups for dine in customers can be banned too.
But cups are biodegradable…
Not all of them. Technology has improved but many still contain plastic to make them watertight. In some parts of the world takeaway coffee is always served in cups that are not biodegradable – they don’t even try to be sustainable. Furthermore, one biodegradable coffee cup in landfill is still worse than no disposable cup in landfill.
Brazil is famous for coffee. Anecdotal evidence suggests this habit is very uncommon in Brazil. Apparently, it is also forbidden in some larger Brazilian cities to serve coffee in a disposable cup to customers who are dining in. Why can’t this law be introduced throughout the world?
What about enforcement?
Of course, any rule is only valid if it is enforced. Is it enforced in Brazil, at every café or outlet? I don’t know. I haven’t been to Brazil since 2001. The enforcement of the rule would place the onus on the staff at the café to refuse to provide the disposable cup even if it was requested. Authorities could conduct checks to monitor the application of the rule, just as inspectors conduct health and hygiene checks on food outlets.
Get used to it
Customers would have to break their habits and this would lead to the inevitable tension that accompanies every new rule change in society. I believe, however, that people would eventually get used to the rule and accept it. In Australia, people complained when single use plastic bags were phased out at major supermarkets, but they eventually got used to it. They also complained when a Goods and Services Tax (GST) added a cost to products at point of sale, but now everyone is used to it.
There are exceptions to every rule, and there may need to be exceptions to this rule. High traffic areas such as airports and food courts may be able to justify using disposable cups for all customers because of the possibility of breakage to glasses or ceramic mugs. It could also be argued that at food courts customers don’t technically dine in.
Why do people request disposable cups?
Some customers claim it keeps their beverage warm for longer. Others say they like the feel of drinking their beverage out of a disposable cup. In addition, some people apparently demand a disposable cup because they don’t know if they will finish their coffee at the café or on the run.
Make up your mind – it’s not that hard.
If we peel back the veneer of flimsy justifications, we know that people act out of laziness, selfishness and apathy. Most people throughout the world, and especially in wealthy countries which produce most of the planet’s waste, know that disposable cups harm the environment, but they just don’t care.
I was starving. I wasn’t very happy either. I’d just hopped off my second crammed, smelly, humid bus ride after returning to Chengyang from Qingdao where I’d tried to renew some paperwork.
Hours and hours of sitting and waiting in noisy government offices, being herded from one counter to the next and trying to understand the officials with my rudimentary grasp of Mandarin had taken its toll on me.
All I wanted now was some food.
I walked towards a local restaurant bursting with noise, locals and cigarette smoke, then past another and another offering the same menu and the same atmosphere. After my battle with officialdom and my lengthy, arduous bus rides, I couldn’t quite face a noisy, smoke-filled restaurant and more exposure of my linguistic shortcomings.
I saw the sign and settled on this venue for lunch. China might not be known for pizza, and Chengyang is more famous for Korean BBQ than for Italian fine dining, but my mood demanded something familiar and filling.
I poked my head through the door and was welcomed by the friendly owner and the sight of some locals enjoying a hearty meal.
This’ll do, I thought
I gestured and pointed my way through my order and had communicated to the owner that I desired garlic bread and a supreme pizza. Exactly what constitutes a supreme pizza in China I wasn’t quite sure, and I didn’t care. I was hungry.
The garlic bread arrived and disappeared simultaneously. I didn’t register its taste or texture, just its journey to my rumbling stomach.
With my appetite partially sated, I surveyed the small restaurant and observed a primary school child struggling through her homework, a young couple exchanging loving glances and another young couple glued to their phones. The remainder of the patrons were locals happily devouring their pizza and chatting to the amiable owners.
Just before my pizza arrived, I noticed something odd. Something I’d never seen at a pizza restaurant, or any restaurant. One of the owners, and a middle-aged couple, were locked in a serious but amicable conversation, which ended when the couple appeared to give their consent.
I was intrigued.
The owner moved toward the kitchen with a determined posture, and disappeared. He emerged a few minutes later with a contraption of some sort. Obscured by the comings and goings of the restaurant I couldn’t quite make out what he was carrying, and only noticed the diners roll up their sleeves.
I then saw the owner attach his contraption to the arm of the husband. It was a blood pressure monitor. Exactly the same as the ones used in doctor’s surgeries. The owner was measuring the couple’s blood pressure.
I wasn’t expecting gourmet pizza and I wasn’t expecting a Michelin hat at a local restaurant on the outskirts of Chengyang, which is on the outskirts of Qingdao. Still, I didn’t expect this couple, and subsequent diners, to be having their blood pressure checked, AFTER they had finished their meals.
What was it about this pizza?
Before I could contemplate this conundrum any longer, my pizza arrived.
It looked OK, but should I eat it?
Does it induce heart flutters, high blood pressure, a stroke?
Why were the owners testing the blood pressure of people in a restaurant. Do they do this every day, is it part of the service?
My mind was racing so fast that it made me hungry. It seemed I had no choice.
I took a bite and it was…edible. Very greasy and cheesy, but edible.
I managed to fit in mouthfuls of pizza between moments of doubt, and I clearly lived to tell the tale.
I wasn’t, however, offered a blood pressure check.
I was feeling rather peckish so I wandered into a local restaurant. It was full so I assumed it must be good.
I took a seat and perused the menu and thanked my lucky stars that the menu contained pinyin and I could read the letters, instead of having to just guess at the meaning of the Chinese characters.
By this stage of my journey through China I had learned to point at a menu and say
“Wo yao Zhege”
“I want this”.
When I did this with menus comprised entirely of characters, I had no idea what I’d ordered and I was served some interesting dishes. To this day I still don’t know what I ate.
It’s one reason I sought out the Uighur restaurants in China. No, not out of political motives. It was because these restaurants served heaped plates of cheap, tasty food, and because they had numbered pictures on the wall which I could point to and say,
“Wo yao Zhege”
At one of these restaurants, the friendly young son showed me his homeland on a world map, and I showed him where I had travelled from. Then he explained that he didn’t actually speak much mandarin, as it was not his first language.
“Tha’s ok,” I replied, “neither do I”
At this particular restaurant in Gulangyu, however, I was confident that I would know what I had ordered and was about to consume.
Would I opt for jirou or nuirou?
It was normally a choice between chicken or beef, much like meals on a plane. At least, it was for someone as linguistically hampered as I.
Having decided on the chicken, I now had to get the attention of the waitress. I’ve never been very good at this and still feel a little uncomfortable doing it, no matter where in the world I find myself. But, my stomach was calling, so it had to be done.
I knew that it was uncommon to signal with the hand or a raised arm in China. I thus tried to meet her eye. This was hard in a restaurant full of hungry visitors who had her running this way and that, taking multiple orders at a time – and not writing them down. She raced between tables and to and from the kitchen and appeared to be the only staff member on duty. Most likely, she was the only family member on duty.
I tried to politely and subtly catch her attention and order my lunch, but it wasn’t working, and with every passing minute my stomach rumbled more impatiently.
Then it occurred to me. The only way to complete my order was to do what everyone else was doing – just yell it at her. Shout your order across the room, over the din of a busy restaurant, even with a mouth full of food. There is little time for niceties in a country of one billion people.
But how was I to do this?
How could I make myself understood with my rudimentary vocabulary and stunted pronunciation? How would she even hear me?
I was devising a strategy when she approached my table to take my order. I think she either felt sorry for the ‘weiguoren’ who had been sitting dumbfounded for at least ten minutes without ordering – or she wanted the table for someone else. After all, if I wasn’t eating, I was costing the owners money.
Thus she approached my table and frantically asked me what I wanted, while three other tables were demanding more food and ‘pijou’ – beer. I stuttered and stumbled through a few words of mandarin but she didn’t understand. She asked again and I couldn’t make myself understood any more clearly.
Then she walked away.
My third attempt was no better than the first two and she simply couldn’t wait. It wasn’t her job to guide me through my Chinese language learning journey with patience and understanding. It was her job to serve the surrounding patrons who were yelling orders at her with growing frequency and impatience.
Now what do I do?
Will I go hungry?
If I can’t order a meal, how do I eat?
Do I go to another restaurant and risk the same outcome?
Do I got to a corner store and buy a packet of biscuits or two-minute noodles? If I bought noodles, how would I heat them?
My mind was racing and my stomach rumbling.
Just then, my saviour arrived. A young Korean woman arrived at the table and observed my plight.
“Do you speak English?” she asked
“Do you need some help?”
So, a young Korean woman took my order in English then translated it into Chinese, and I did manage to eat. I also had some company for my meal.
I felt inadequate and embarrassed. Not just because I’d failed to order a simple meal, but also because I had to be saved by a Korean who used her second and third languages to order for me.
I enjoyed my meal because my new found friend had managed to order a particular sauce as well as the ‘ji rou’ and ‘fan’ – chicken and rice. On a previous occasion, I had ordered beef and rice, and had received just that – strips of beef and white rice. It was bland to say the least.
I didn’t go hungry and enjoyed a tasty meal in good company.
Without the language of the host country or region, it is possible to travel, but it does detract from the experience. If I hadn’t been saved by a friendly Korean, I think I would have found some way to eat – I hope so.
It did make me wonder, without a mastery of mandarin, what is one to do in Gulangyu?
One would most likely wander the pedestrian only island and admire the mix of Chinese and European architecture which distinguishes this small island from other cities in China.
Gulangyu was actually an international settlement and became a busy, open port in 1842 when the Treaty of Nanjing ended the Opium Wars. Today it is more heavily populated with interntational tourists and locals, who pop across for a day trip or a weekend on the ferry from Xiamen.
The warm weather and salty air also lend the island a distinct atmosphere, and it is pleasant to wander around the island and watch the fisherman at work, and appreciate the role of the sea in supporting the people who have lived here for thousands of years.
An ascent to one of the lookout points affords a view of the island back to the skyscrapers of Xiamen.
Ripe Near Me is a web-based app which shows people the location of fresh, home grown or naturally growing food. The website highlights the location of fruit, vegetables or herbs which are growing in a local area and allows everyday people to sell, swap or give away their homegrown produce.
Ripe Near Me was established to encourage and enable people to source food from their local area. It taps into the tradition of growing food or foraging for food close to home, and is designed to reduce the carbon footprint created by the storage, refrigeration and transportation of food in the modern era.
The site also aims to increase the amount of food that is grown sustainably, and to utilise more public and private space, even the humble balcony, for growing fresh food. Members can also source a greater variety of food, and expand their palette, and eat food that is in season.
Eating food grown at home or in the immediate local area was commonplace until not so long ago. Ripe Near Me plans to revive that tradition for the good of the planet. Micro farms are also provided with a platform to make their operations profitable while improving the health of people around them.
Is it free?
Membership yes, food…sometimes.
Registration for the website is free, and once registered members can find food and give it away, sell it or swap it.
Each member chooses whether they give away, swap or sell their food. Members will often give away excess food. They swap this for an item that a neighbour has in excess and thus save food from rotting or ending up in the bin. Sure, you can put excess food in your worm farm or compost, but it’s always better to eat it – after all that’s why food is grown. If you can’t eat it, the next best option is to give it to someone who can.
Ripe Near Me also alerts people to food that is growing naturally in public spaces. Remember the old choko tree that most Aussies used to have, or still have, growing in their backyard? The tree that sprouts from nowhere, in unsuitable soil, with no care or attention, and produces consistent fruit…that’s one example of a naturally growing food that might be posted on the site. And before you deride the humble choko, try adding it to a dish. Sure it has no taste, but it’s filling, and if you prepare a tasty sauce you can negate the choko’s inherent blandness.
Why not just go to the supermarket?
Supermarket shopping is convenient. You can buy everything you need at once, and the shopping is done. However, shopping for fruit and vegetables at major supermarkets, and even some local fruit shops, is problematic.
Fruit and vegetables sold at major supermarkets are almost never organic. Heavy chemicals are used to grow and preserve the food. It won’t kill you, but it’s not as healthy- for you or the planet.
Major supermarkets create enormous amounts of waste. They still demand that the majority of their produce conforms to standards of size, shape and colour, and this forces farmers to throw out perfectly good food just because it doesn’t look nice. This creates waste, because the enormous quantity of food that is rejected makes it near impossible to compost. It also creates financial strain for the farmers, because they earn nothing for the ‘ugly’ fruit.
Some supermarkets are selling a small amount of ‘ugly’ fruit, but still insist on putting ‘pretty’ fruit on the shelves. Ugly or pretty, it all tastes the same.
Furthermore, major supermarkets source their food out of season and from many different locations, and are forced to store, refrigerate and transport all produce, at great cost to the planet.
Is it safe?
Yes. Members post reviews of people who are giving away, swapping or selling food, and you can browse these reviews before obtaining the food. Also, the system normally allows you to meet the grower in person and see their garden. You can ask them about their farming techniques and ascertain whether the food is healthy or organic, as well as exchanging ideas. You see more of the growing process through Ripe Near Me than you do when shopping at a supermarket. After all, at a supermarket you know the apples come from Batlow, but from which orchard? How are they grown and harvested? Plus, do you know what happened to the fruit from the time it was picked to the time it ended up on the shelf?
How does it work?
Everyone’s produce is posted on the website’s map. You type in your local area and are shown what is available in your neighbourhood or region. It’s basically online foraging.
Growing or Ripe?
Red and green symbols next to the food explain whether it is ripe or still growing. Members can subscribe to any produce listing by clicking on a button, and collect the item if it’s ripe. If it’s still growing, they’ll be sent a notification when it’s ready.
Does size matter?
No. Any food item can be listed. From one tomato to a garden bed full of silverbeet, it can all be listed on the site, even that tiny amount of herbs you have growing on your window sill.
Is it like a food swap?
Yes. It is an online service which helps to set up a food swap. It is different because it allows people to swap food at any time, rather than waiting for the designated time and day of the local food swap. It is advantageous in the current reality, where the pandemic has restricted the number of social gatherings that can take place. It also allows people to swap their food before it goes off. Food swaps share a similar philosophy to Ripe Near Me, and stop food from becoming waste.
If you do go to a food swap, avoid the mistake that I once made. I arrived at the food swap on the designated day, only to find one other person there. It was the final weekend of school holidays so locals were either on holidays or getting their kids ready for the new school term. The other attendee had seeds which I didn’t need, and I was offering silverbeet – a tonne of silverbeet. She didn’t want my silverbeet, so I walked around town on a Sunday afternoon trying to give away a massive bouquet of silverbeet wrapped in a towel. I felt like a wedding planner or a blushing bride.
The founders of Ripe Near Me, Alistair and Helena Martin from Adelaide, South Australia, envisage an urban landscape overflowing with food for all. They aim to incentivise people to grow food sustainably and to distribute that food locally, as well as encouraging people to pick food off a plant, not a shelf.