Nation of Brunei, Abode of Peace
Guys. This one almost broke me.
I can’t really overstate how much time and effort I put into this entry – over six months of preparation and research, visits to at least twelve different Asian markets in three boroughs and a few on the internet, countless informational favors from friends of friends (of friends) and even (unanswered) emails to the Embassy of Brunei in Washington, D.C. and the Brunei Board of Tourism – just sayin, I really, really hope it was worth it. Though Brunei sits on the world’s third-largest island, you’d never know it from the paucity of specifically Bruneian ingredients in New York City.
It was very important to me that, for this entry, I highlight a dish that was unique to Brunei. See, its proximity to other countries in Southeast Asia – especially Malaysia and Indonesia, with whom it shares the island of Borneo – causes most people to assume that Brunei’s food culture is simply an offshoot of these of other sovereignties. This may be true to a large extent, and especially so regarding other Southeast-Asian Muslim countries, but there is indeed a dish found in Brunei that is found nowhere else, and this is exactly what we are going to make.
They call it ambuyat.
Ambuyat is a dish based around cooked ambulung, or powdered sago starch. Ambulung is extracted from the pith of the sago palm‘s bark, and became an important nutritional component of the average Bruneian’s diet during World War II. With the Japanese occupation of the island and the subsequent shortages of rice, Borneo natives in need turned to the traditionally indigenous, calorie-rich carbohydrate staple of sago starch in order to survive. Times have changed, of course, following the discovery of immense oil supplies in 1929, but Bruneians still hold ambuyat - the modern version of this carb – in high regard as an honored piece of their heritage and national character. Blog posts abound of smiling Bruneians enjoying bowls of gooey, gelatinous ambuyat with a seemingly endless array of colorful side dishes and dips. I did not find ready-to-cook ambulung anywhere (not surprising), but I did find real sago from an international seller on Amazon, so I powdered it myself and sifted several times. (Note: Sago is often confused with the sometimes-inaccurately-translated sabudana, an Indian ingredient that is variably made from either sago or tapioca/yuca starch. No way to tell for sure, so I went with the harder-to-find real deal.)
Now, ambuyat on its own has no real flavor – it’s just, well… starchy, kind of like a bland, free-form noodle. This is where the side dishes come in. Ambuyat is meant to be served alongside a variety of dips, condiments, meats, soups and greens. It’s also NOT supposed to be chewed – you’re obliged to use your candas (“chan-das”, a special two-pronged bamboo stick) to twirl up some of the steaming hot goo, dip it in one of the condiments (cacah, pronounced “cha-cha” [NB: I stand corrected, it is pronounced "cha-cah"! - MR]), and then swallow the lump whole. I assume lots of tourists choke on ambuyat.
After looking at a lot of pictures of ambuyat spreads and reading numerous travelogues involving this dish, I decided on three condiments, a veggie and a soup, all representative of a typical ambuyat meal. Let’s start with the most formidable of these condiments – sambal tempoyak, a fermented durian sauce.
Wait, did you say “durian”? FERMENTED durian?!
Oh, yes. Yes, I did.
Durian’s flavor is not really the insipid horror that it’s so often made out to be. (NB: if you’ve never heard of this fruit, you should really read the wiki on it as a primer.) It’s not a taste that I am at all fond of, but after two encounters with this spiky plant I am beginning to understand how some find it to be very appealing. There IS a sweetness buried under its dizzying funk – something not unlike an overripe papaya mixed with rotten onions in a hot dumpster. I have no explanation for this, but the sense memory that most readily springs up for me when I taste durian is actually the pink amoxicillin syrup I had to drink by the tiny-plastic-cupful when I used to get strep throat as a kid – medicinally sweet, cringe-inducing and imbued with reluctance and a little fear. I also taste boiled egg. If you’ve ever tried to thoughtfully tackle a really runny, pungent French cheese that reeks of a barn, you’re getting the idea. To say it’s an acquired taste is a drastic, abhorable understatement. But there is nothing else like it on earth.
The real issue with durian, I think, is that it’s just so AUDACIOUS. Durian is that guy at the party who is incessantly jingling change in his pocket, excitedly slapping everyone on the back WAY too hard and eventually, I don’t know, breaking the bathroom door by accident or something. He’s not subtle at all, and even though deep-down he’s probably a really nice guy and just wants approval, everyone’s always like “ugggghhhh durian is here…” There is no “Durian Lite” – the volume knob is always at 11.
The poor durian’s problems stem partially from its complex profile of volatile compounds – lots of sulfur flavors and esters. Notable among these are ethyl acetate (which carries a smell that many would recognize as nail polish remover), benzyl alcohol (which is present in jasmine and some teas, but also in commercial wood laquer) and, after sitting for a while, ammonia. Another issue for those of us in the West – as the fruit ages during shipping, the ester compounds that provide sweetness break down, while sulfur content remains stable and benzyl alcohol content increases. All this means is that the “off” smell of a durian gets worse the longer it takes to get from Asia to your nose, and unless you taste a durian close to its harvest chances are you’re really only getting a stank, aged, overripe version of it. Couple that with its stringy, mushy texture and it’s knifepoint-sharp spikes and you have a recipe for wholesale character assassination in the West. It’s just criminal.
Anyway, tempoyak - you scoop out the bright yellow seed-nodes from a durian, mash up the pulp, mix it with salt and put it in a jar. Wait a week. Apologize to everyone around you for the aroma seeping out of the fridge while you frenziedly seal the jar in ever-more concentric layers of ziploc bags. Now you have this:
Take everything I said about durian up to this point, and multiply it by six. Then add more onion and egg. That’s tempoyak.
Obviously durian is not the only ingredient in Bruneian cuisine. Like its neighbors, Brunei has an affinity for other Southeast-Asian ingredients like birdseye chilies, shallots and belacan, a roasted, fermented shrimp paste that comes in the shape of a brick.
The flavor of belacan is also hard to describe, since its odor and its taste are so different from each other – to my Western nose, it smells of fresh, wet soil. Taken alone (which is almost never done), it tastes of bitter ocean water. Regular eaters of belacan say that it imbues food with an indescribable flavor, like the umami of Far Eastern cuisine (which has so recently become such an irritating and anemic buzzword in the U.S.) It’s what belacan does to other ingredients that defines its role.
These ingredients, along with juice from the ultra-sweet calamansi lime (found in concentrate form at Shi Eurasia, a Malaysian/Kiwi supply store on Orchard Street in Manhattan), form the base of the condiments that will be served with our ambuyat – the aforementioned sambal tempoyak (funky, fruity), the ubiquitous, classically Malaysian sambal belacan (pure salty fire) and the chunky and unexpectedly effervescent sambal cencaluk (uhhh…)
A quick word on that last one – first off, nobody told me that cencaluk was carbonated (edit: not true, the wiki says it. I’m just dumb.). It’s just salt-fermented/pickled udang geragau, the same tiny shrimp/krill that are used to make belacan. No big deal, right? It came in what looked like an old-school soda bottle, complete with a metal bottle-cap that depicted a cartoon shrimp on it. That shrimp was the last thing I saw before my face, my arms, my chest and part of the ceiling were coated in a heterogeneous veil of aged, semi-liquid shellfish. The bottle-cap had rocketed into another room, and the aroma surrounding me was something like cat food or semi-digested tuna sandwich. Which, if you think about it, is sort of what cencaluk is – sea creature that has been coaxed into an intermediate and retarded state of putrefaction, allowing the volatile compounds within it to merge, disintegrate and recombine into new flavors, odors and colors. Not really all that different from a lot of stuff eaten in the West – wine, beer, prosciutto, sauerkraut, yogurt, pickles… It’s really just the fishy angle on fermentation that freaks us out, since our exposure to it is usually minimal. And by “minimal” I really don’t mean a cup-and-a-half of it violently shot at my face.
OK, we got these sambals pretty much on lockdown, so let’s move on to the main course – ikan kembung asam rebus, or “sour mackerel soup”. Again, I’ll need to introduce a few out-of-the-ordinary ingredients.
First we have fresh turmeric root, which is integral to many cuisines of the East and has very recently become quite the vogue in dietary supplements and as an additive in those heavily-marketed health drinks. Studies are showing that turmeric root touts vigorous anti-cancer properties, and it has an clean, astringent, nasal taste that is very unique. In this soup its main role is to reinforce the “sour” aspect against the fattiness of the mackerel, along with another strange product, asam keping.
Asam keping are dried slices of a Malaysian rainforest fruit that is know botanically as garcinia atroviridis. This fruit is SOUR. Like, short-guy-passed-up-for-promotion-to-manager sour, or quadruple-divorcee sour. Trust me, I chewed on a piece and my face involuntary imploded into a fleshy singularity. To make the soup, you just toss a few pieces into the pot along with the turmeric, chilis, more belacan and mushed-up shallots, and a nice, slender mackerel, hacked in half. Oh, and water.
To finish this dish, you sprinkle on a little daun kesom, which has a grassy flavor that is kind of like mint but also kind of like something else. The Vietnamese superstition is that daun kesom (or rau ram, in Vietnamese) suppresses sexual urges, though with the breath you’d have after eating this I really couldn’t imagine anyone being in much of a mood for the horizontal mambo anyway.
First, some dried anchovies – the same salty fishies that Asian fish sauce is made from! These are to be pounded in a mortar along with the requisite shallot and chilis, and even a little garlic this time.
You take this paste now and saute it along with gorgeously-hued sayur bayam, a sneaky name for the by-now-familiar amaranth. Before I started this blog I had no clue how freaking common amaranth/callaloo/borogo/imbuya/bayam is in the world diet – it grows almost everywhere, and pretty hardily at that. The name amaranth comes from the Greek word for “undying”, which maybe explains its popularity, if not its ubiquity.
As this cooks, it actually smells a lot like an Italian dish I know very well – escarole braised with anchovy and garlic. Finally, a moment of recognizable comfort after spending so many hours wandering with no map (and no GPS).
And so here were are, friends. The hour of reckoning, after so much planning, grimacing and exploding shrimp guts. With no small measure of anxiety I poured boiling water into a large bowl and whisked the ambuyat with all of myself. I couldn’t get the powder ground as finely as an industrial machine could, so it came out a little clumpy, but still far better than I had expected. I also made myself some makeshift, MacGruber-style candas by snapping and then taping together some chopsticks from the Chinese restaurant down the block.
I want to be honest – I’m sort of struggling with how this entry has played itself out. I really wanted to give Brunei a fair shake, and I think I have done that at least through my methodological diligence. The one major setback here has been my palette. I am what I’d consider to be an open-minded eater, but for the first time in a very long time I have found my gastro-cultural foundation to be… inadequate. I have never before tasted flavors so foreign to me, or smelled smells so contextually confused – what others, somewhere else, celebrate and crave has made me recoil, wince, shake my head with panic, “NO!”, while eons of evolved neurological defenses strongly suggested I not allow what was in my mouth go any further into my body. Like an unholy inversion of Proust’s madeleine, a celebrated condiment recalls the taste and smell of tuna-sandwich vomit; a much-loved soup, sniffed with closed eyelids, brings up only sense memories of dumpsters and soil; and a life-saving carbohydrate conjures only the faintest apostate recollection of masticated communion wafers.
Can this be right? Is this what these foods are supposed to taste like? How can I know if I made a mistake??
What else can I say? Brunei, it’s not you, it’s me. I’ll get there, I swear.
Wait for me?
(***One confession before we wrap this up – I was unable to make the über-condiment that goes along with many ambuyat sittings – the eponymous and sour-sweet cacah ambuyat. There are no exports of binjai, a sour mango native to Borneo, to the U.S., or probably to anywhere for that matter. Binjai is necessary in ambuyat cacah, though, and you know my policy – sine qua non, no substitutions, no bullshit. I did confirm, however, that ambuyat is normally served with a choice of condiments, and that not everyone chooses or even likes the version with binjai. The side dishes I did include should all be legit and have been quadruple-checked. If you are Bruneian and see this, pleaaaaase inform me of any accuracy issues and I will gladly look into a correction.***)
[UPDATE: WOW! Lots of Bruneians have looked at this entry, based on the wonderful comments below and my WordPress hit map. Terima kasih to you all for the kind words and helpful information! This is precisely the type of feedback that I pray for with each entry. Now, a few corrections to make:
- The dip that accompanies ambuyat is pronounced "cha-cah", not "cha-cha" as previously explained.
- Binjai is apparently NOT necessary to make a proper cacah!
- The belacan that I used is possibly the wrong regional type - rather than the chalky brick version, it has been suggested that I instead use what I can only assume to be petis udang, a stickier, fresher-looking version.
- Ambuyat is apparently also found in Maluku, Indonesia and Papua where it is known as papeda.
- Cooking sago is hard for Bruneians, too.]
Now you go:
1 cup mashed durian pulp
1 tsp salt
Mix well. Store in an airtight container for 1-2 weeks. Eat. Will keep in the fridge indefinitely.
Sago pearls, ground
Whisk boiling water into a large bowl containing the ground sago starch. Continue to whisk until it sets. Serve with sambals, using candas.
Sayur Bayam Goreng
2 bunches amaranth (bayam)
handful dried anchovies (ikan bilis)
4 shallots (bawang merah)
2 cloves of garlic (bawang putih)
sliced birdseye chili (cili padi potong)
Pound the shallots, garlic, chilis and ikan bilis in a mortar. Saute in a little neutral oil until fragrant. Add the amaranth and continue to cook until tender. Serve.
Ikan Kembung Asam Rebus
1 mackerel, cleaned (ikan kembong)
2 red birdseyes (cili padi)
2 red serranos (cili merah)
1/2 inch belacan
4 pcs asam gelugor/keping
3 sprigs daun kesom (persicaria odorata)
1-inch knob fresh turmeric, peeled
salt to taste
Clean the fish and cut it to fit the pot. Pound the chilis together in a mortar until smooth. Top the fish with the pounded chilies, asam gelugor, turmeric and water. Let it boil and add the daun kesom and salt. Cook about 20 minutes or until the fish is flaky and cooked through. Serve hot!
4 tbsp cencaluk
2 tbsp sliced red birdseye chili (cili padi)
1 tsp palm sugar
2 tbsp calamansi lime juice
Pound the chilis, shallots and sugar in a mortar. Mix well with cencaluk and lime juice. Serve. (NB: if using calamansi concentrate omit the palm sugar! It’s already sweetened.)
4 tsp tempoyak
3 birdseye chilis (cili padi)
1 serrano chili (cili merah)
1 tbsp belacan
Salt to taste
Pound the chilis and belacan in a mortar. Mix well with tempoyak. Serve at room temperature.
4 oz sliced chilis (cili padi)
1 tablespoon belacan
1 – 1 1/2 teaspoons palm sugar
2 tablespoons calamansi lime juice
Pound the chilis, belacan, salt and palm sugar in a mortar. Mix well with lime juice. Serve. (NB: if using calamansi concentrate omit the palm sugar! It’s already sweetened.)