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“Please sir, can I have something else?”

Brunei strikes out with ambuyat, no doubt one of the more prominent leftovers at UN buffet dinners.

Aminah Arif
7 Jalan Gadong
BSB, Brunei
Tel: 245-6447
(45 B$ for 4 people)
Reviewed: 04-05-06

No matter how you swing it, it never feels good abusing someone’s national dish. Some Icelandic may like fermented shark but I just don’t think it’s my thing. Certain Pilipino may be gaga for balut, semi developed duck foetus, but not I. I had hoped that ambuyat, a paste made from sago and the closest thing Brunei has to a national food, would be something like African fufu; a chewy, dough like dumpling, toothsome and satisfying, like a dense lump of couscous. Such was not the case.

To begin with, our arrival at the restaurant drew stares. The kind of stares where people stop in mid-chew, mouth slightly ajar, and follow you with their eyes, pivoting their heads, as you make for your table. The waitress however was charming, spoke very good English and as we navigated the menu she helped out with suggestions and explanations where needed. Sipping our delicious non-alcoholic juices (the lemon crush is a must) we pondered our fate. It wasn’t long in coming.

As the dishes began arriving we were pleasantly surprised, not to say reassured. Almost without fail they were delicious. Almost. A dried fried beef with onions and green chillies (daging lalap), tasted a bit like meaty Parmesan, in a good way, especially to cheese starved palates. Fern tips stir fried with garlic and shrimp paste (sayur pakis balacan) was delicious, as was a spinach like leaf cooked in a generous amount of coconut milk. Mackerel in sauce (Ikan masak ampap) was sweet and sour if a little bony. I’m not a mackerel fan, but that’s just me. Beef rendang was richly flavoured, in a dark and delicious sauce, and ulam-ulaman, a simple vegetable plate with sweet and mildly hot dipping sauce, rounded out the side dishes. Then came the ambuyat.

ambuyat. Photo by Tandy Sean

ambuyat. Photo by Tandy Sean

“Don’t chew” the waitress instructed, depositing the bowl in the middle of the table. Served in a large smooth, off-white mass, diners use a forked piece of wood called a candas, similar to chopsticks, to pinch off lumps which are dipped in a special sauce and swallowed whole. We of course not only tried to serve ourselves portions, a gluey and ill-advised endeavour, but chewed as well.

“It tastes like the glue in kindergarten,” said Sean and we all nodded, distant memories of papier-mache and strips of newspaper coming to mind. He wasn’t half wrong. Entirely flavourless in an uncooked paste kind of way, the only thing to do was to dip into the sauce. From there sprang another surprise. At once fruity, hot, sweet and sour, with a strange undertone, the sauce (tempoyak) was not so bad to begin with. But the flavour grew, gradually taking over everything, and by the time we identified that strange underlying flavour as fermented durian it was firmly entrenched.

So powerful was this undertone that a good hour later we still tasted it. The ambuyat seemed to grow as well so that we were barely able to finish off 1/3 of the bowl, guiltily leaving the remainder on the table. Indeed, a set menu for 3 at 32B$ was easily enough for 4, and a menu for 2 probably could have done the job for those less hungry.

I’m never averse to trying new things. Visiting somewhere and not trying a national or regional food is counterintuitive. That’s what traveling’s all about right? It may be, but you can’t win every time.

by Michael Elliott

Smaller family run restaurants can often whip up an ambuyat dinner if given sufficient warning. However you risk upsetting the chef