Meal 25: Brunei Darussalam

Hands down, Brunei posed the biggest challenge to date. Partly due to the fact that this small, wealthy, Islamic sultanate is proud of its internationally diverse culinary culture, there's not a ton of info available online about distinctly Bruneian foods. It was an online treasure hunt, with plenty of Google Translate and a few key finds such as an article from a Philippine newspaper, leading me mostly to ethnically Malay recipes that seemed to also be popular in Brunei. Then, finding the ingredients was tough: with the go-to Indonesian place in Chinatown recently closed, I found most of what I needed at Asia Corp and Hong Kong Supermarket, then had to head to Murray Hill for a few last things — and even then a few ingredients, such as fermented durian, proved totally elusive. At least I found most of what I needed, here's some of the loot I picked up:

Tonight's meal was, as Emily puts it, "vegaquarian," so no meat but plenty of fish of various sizes. Our other guests were Kate, Nick, Raven, Eleanor, and Forrest. They were all extremely patient and helpful as I tried to figure out what the heck to make of the various recipes.

Laura also tried out a 50 mm lens for tonight's photography, and we think it turned out pretty well – note the tight focus on a lot of the photos.

Teh tarik | Sweet milky tea | Recipe

Meaning "pulled tea," this is black tea (we used Assam) with sweetened condensed milk that's poured back and forth for three reasons: to cool it off, to make it all frothy, and for entertainment. The latter proved difficult, since it's hard to pour cleanly between glasses, so we did it in bulk as Raven demonstrates above. This tasty caffeinated sugary drink, combined with the various alcoholic beverages which we consumed — perhaps problematically, since no alcohol is sold in Brunei! — led to a bit of a Four Loko effect and hence some highly animated conversation.

Ambuyat | Sago starch | Description

Ambuyat is supposed to be a smooth, gelatinous blob (like here), made from the starch of the felled sago palm, and supposedly the one distinctively Bruneian dish. I scoured for it, didn't find it in Chinatown, finally discovered that it's also in Indian cuisine and available in NYC, and what I found was called "tapioca" but also had the word sago on it a few times so I figured what the heck. Well, it just didn't work at all. Rather than a smooth, flavorless mass, it looked like, well, tapioca, and tasted on the nasty side of bland. We couldn't do the twirly-stick thing you were supposed to, so instead we scooped it onto our plates like rice. Maybe the sago was supposed to be a powder rather than in balls? Who knows — if you do, let me know!

Fish stew with tamarind, lemongrass, and fresh turmeric | Recipe

Well, if the ambuyat was a failure, the fish I made to go with it was a huge success, and probably the one thing I'd make again. First I pounded generous amounts of shallots, lemongrass, hot little red peppers, ginger and fresh turmeric (well, it was frozen, but that's as opposed to powdered), in fact I muddled it in a shaker like a mojito. Then made a stew with tamarind (more on that particular fruit later), and slowly simmered basa fish in it. Totally delicious, if a bit too spicy, but some guests liked that!

Cacah | Sour dipping sauce | Recipe

Pronounced cha-cha, these flavors were certainly an exotic dance in the mouth. The recipe I link to has no proportions, and also I couldn't find pickled binjal (a fruit that seems close to a green mango) nor tempoyak (fermented durian), so here's what I did with what I could find that turned out about as well as I could have hoped, without of course knowing what it's actually supposed to taste like:

  • 2 slices picked green mango
  • half-pound preserved turnip
  • 6 Thai chilis (the hot little red guys)
  • half-inch slice of shrimp paste (belacan), so probably 1.5 tablespoons
  • 1 ounce tiny-ass dried shrimp
  • half-cup lime juice
  • small lump of palm jaggery (could easily use brown sugar)
  • a bit of sambal oelek since I didn't have another type of fresh chilies
  • a little over a half-cup of broth made from dried anchovies and a bit of turmeric root

Holy cow, it was weird, but it was tangy and fishy and spicy and I think that that's about how it should have been. To make a vegetarian version, I did the above but just removed the fish products and made a broth just with turmeric.

This preparation, which probably involved 100 tiny little shrimps and anchovies plus however many went into the shrimp paste, reminded me of an article that my friend Max quoted to me a few days prior, about how Tibetan Buddhists, who ought to be vegetarian, by necessity of their geography have to eat meat — and so they eat big animals:

“The karmic load of killing one rabbit and one yak are the same: one life,” he said. “But you can feed a lot more people with a yak.”

By the way, what's pictured above is a fish-free version I made; the fishy one is a bit paler and redder. Also, in the pitcher is calamansi (aka ketsuri) juice, which tastes halfway between lime and tangerine and is 100% delicious (especially with rum). A can of concentrate which makes a whole pitcher runs about $2 at Asia Corp, I plan on making this a mainstay in our freezer!

Rebus asam keladi | Boiled yam in sour sauce | Recipe

Since I just couldn't find yam shoots anywhere, I made this dish with straight-up purple yams. And just like with Benin, I found that the raw peeled yam has a weird anesthetic effect for me, so I had to use silicone potholders to handle it. Anyway. This dish was similarly intense to the cacah, with fishy and spicy flavors abounding. We also had the dubious visual pleasure of tamarind, which is a really tasty and tangy fruit, but has the unfortunate visual aspect to merit Laura's nickname for them: poop nuts. Seems pretty apt.

Sambal manga | Ripe mango salad | Recipe

A nice, simple little salad. Note how the recipe calls it "ripe mango," since unripe green mango is a popular salad ingredient too. I made this one without the fish paste just to give everyone a break.

Urap | Cooked vegetables with coconut | Recipe

And just because I was somehow afraid we'd all go hungry, I made yet another veggie dish. I shrunk the recipe a bit by omitting the carrots and cabbage, and still think we had plenty to enjoy. The fresh shredded coconut on top was a nice touch.

Bubur ketam hitam | Black rice pudding | Recipe

You know you've just had an exotic meal when gelatinous black rice feels like a comforting return to normal food. And it was actually pretty tasty. We sweetened it with palm sugar to what felt like the culturally accurate amount, which is to say about half as sweet as I'd have liked. On top we poured fresh coconut milk, which I made by mushing around shredded coconut in fresh water.

It was a fun crowd, with lively discussions of game shows, competitive nakedness (don't ask!), and much more. And once again, our generous guests helped us make something bigger out of the meal, with another $180 going to the World Food Program.

We're taking off again next week, and then a major shift up to the yogurt and pork of Bulgaria.