Brunei

Selamat datang! Welcome! This weekend we’ve been in Brunei, a tiny country in Southeast Asia.

Our experience in Brunei reminded me quite a bit of our experience in Andorra. The two countries are both small in terms of land mass and population (though Andorra is smaller). More significantly, however, it was a challenge to find things that were distinct to both countries. During our globetrot to Andorra, we relied on what we could learn about Catalan culture from neighboring Spain. With Brunei, we looked to its neighbor, Malaysia, for inspiration.

There are also similarities between Brunei and another country we’ve covered, Bahrain. Both are tiny, predominantly Islamic countries, and former protectorates of the United Kingdom, who gained their independence in the late twentieth century (1971 for Bahrain; 1984 for Brunei). The two countries are also quite wealthy, in large part to natural oil reserves.

We began our Bruneian weekend with nasi lemak, a popular Malay breakfast dish. Nasi lemak is a coconut rice dish served with a variety of sides, including cucumber, hard-boiled egg, roasted peanuts and a meat-based curry. We skipped the peanuts because of Derek’s allergy, and instead of meat, I made some green beans in a chili-garlic sauce, and a mushroom sambal. Maybe I was distracted because I was trying to make multiple components at the same time, but my coconut rice didn’t come out that well–it’s possible that I messed up the liquid-to-rice ratio. But the plated dish looked quite nice, and on the whole, it was pretty delicious.

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To get an overview of places in Brunei, we watched the following vacation guide on YouTube, which showed us both the modern and the more traditional aspects of the country.

For lunch, Derek tackled the one distinctly Bruneian dish we could find in our research, ambuyat, a sticky ball of what I would describe as translucent, flavorless goo. Typically it’s made from sago starch, but we used tapioca starch as a substitute. Ambuyat is wrapped around a bamboo utensil called chandas and then dipped in various sauces. Derek made two sauces, a chili one and a mango one, in addition to the ambuyat (here’s the recipe he followed, minus the shrimp and durian). He’d also engineered our chandas from takeout chopsticks, cardboard and tape, the day before.

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Kangkung belacan, stir-fried water spinach with shrimp paste and chilies, is a common side dish, though for ours Derek skipped the shrimp paste and used regular spinach after reading about how improperly cleaned and cooked kangkung can make one seriously ill. (For what it’s worth, I’ve eaten water spinach at numerous restaurants and I haven’t gotten sick yet, but it’s not like I wanted the responsibility of making sure it was properly washed and cooked, either–I’m happy leaving that to restaurant chefs.)
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Ambuyat is definitely going to be one of our most memorable globetrotting dishes. Once you’ve wrapped a small glob around your chandas and dipped it in sauce, you’re supposed to swallow it without chewing. (When you have a slight phobia of swallowing pills, like I do, this practice is especially difficult.) Derek and I both preferred the mango sauce (the brighter sauce to the right in the photo), as the chili sauce was a bit too spicy for us. The spinach was a welcome relief, and seemed so “normal” compared to everything else.

We took it easy in the afternoon, and shortly after Derek woke up from his nap, we took the T into Boston and ate dinner at Penang, a Malaysian restaurant in Chinatown. I had a Malaysian iced tea and the Buddhist yam pot, which was stir-fried vegetables in a shell, or pot, made from mashed and then-fried taro, and Derek had a durian fruit shake and beef rendang, which was beef slow-cooked in coconut milk, spices and lemongrass. Beef rendang is also one of the most well-known Malaysian dishes.

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I guess I had exotic on my brain, because on our way home, we stopped by H-Mart and picked up some fresh mangosteen, a tropical fruit that grows primarily in Southeast Asia. It’s still pretty rare to find fresh mangosteen in the United States, so I figured we should jump on the opportunity, especially since our current globetrot was in Southeast Asia. Here on the left you can see a mangosteen that’s been cut open (the white portion is the edible fruit), and on the right a whole mangosteen.

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Derek had hoped to find a copy of Yasmine, Brunei’s first commercial feature film, but we didn’t have any luck. We did find a travelogue, Cruising QE2 to the Orient, in which the ocean liner the Queen Elizabeth 2 (no longer in service) makes a brief stop in Brunei during its trip through Asia.   Most of the information about Brunei was already familiar to us from the YouTube video we had watched earlier in the day, however.

We had more nasi lemak the next morning, which was a breeze to ensemble since everything had been made the day before, and just needed reheating. Afterwards, we watched a documentary on YouTube to learn more about Brunei’s system of government, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. Given Brunei’s current prosperity, it seems like most Bruneians are content with the status quo for now, but the future is uncertain when the country’s oil reserves are tapped dry.

Ambuyat, we discovered at lunch, does not reheat well. While our concoction was rather lumpy the day before, it seemed more lumpy the second day. I like tapioca pudding and bubble tea, but it was hard to eat the ambuyat. Derek found that it was easier to eat mixed with some apricot preserves we had in the fridge, since the spicy sauces we made were hard to handle.

We watched a 60 Minutes Australia piece on the sultan and his brother Prince Jefri, which alleges that the sultan and the royal family are not held accountable to the strict Sharia laws the rest of the Islamic nation must obey. We afterwards went out for a long walk–not for any Bruneian purpose, but to just get up and moving on a summer afternoon.

Our final meal was a collaborative effort. Derek made the roti canai, a flaky flatbread made in a hot skillet, while I made a Malaysian-style tofu curry. The roti was especially good, but definitely a “sometimes food” considering the amount of oil the recipe uses (we did reduce the amount of salt, per recommendations from other recipe testers).

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When we first started researching and preparing for Brunei, I was worried that we wouldn’t find too much, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by all we managed to do (and eat) this weekend. I don’t think we’ll ever try making ambuyat again, but it was still a worthwhile experience. It’ll also be interesting keeping an eye on Brunei, now that we better understand the political situation there–will it become more democratic in the near future? And what new industry will replace oil, when those resources are depleted? Terima kasih, Brunei! Thank you! It’s been a pleasure.

– Jess

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