The 1000 Year Old Brunei Food

I wrote the following article for The Golden Legacy column on Brunei Times yesterday:-

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Like most countries around the world which has their own traditional dish, Brunei too has its own traditional dish. The ‘Ambuyat’ is one of Brunei’s well known traditional dish. It is certainly unique and one wonders how the dish came about.

Ambuyat is made from sago. Sago is derived or extracted from the trunk of the ‘Rumbia’ tree (scientific name, metroxylon), a family of palm trees found in Brunei and Borneo. Sago looks like white flour, but when mixed with hot water and stirred with the right consistency, that white flour will turn into a rather unique soft gum or starch.

Ambuyat is twirled around a pair of ‘candas’ which is a conjoined bamboo chop stick and dipped in a sauce known as ‘cacah’, before being swallowed by the diner. The dips are made from local fruits such as ‘binjai’ or ‘pidada’ or from fermented shrimps known locally as ‘cencalu’. Normally the dip is sour but chillies can be added to make it spicier. Besides the dips, there are also a variety of side dishes. One of the popular side dishes is ‘pais daging’ (scrapings of meat wrapped in banana leaves which is then cooked on fire).

If one accidentally swallows a very hot ‘ambuyat’, the cure according to one old wives’ tale, is to hug a banana tree instead of gulping cold water.

How and when was sago discovered?

It will never be known how and when sago was discovered. One interesting theory was written in an earlier Brunei Times’ article about ambuyat written by Bahrum Ali.
In it, one Haji Markandi, a former Malay Literature lecturer at Duli Pengiran Muda Al-Muhtadee Billah College, said that according to stories told by senior citizens, a group of Ibans were cutting Rumbia trees in the jungle to look for edible maggots.
“Some of them ate the maggots, fresh from the tree with the sago sticking to the maggots’s body when they noticed that the sago was also delicious to eat,” he said. They brought the whole trunk back and shared it with the others.

“After a long period and several tries, they found another way to make (the sago) better which is by pouring hot water to make it delicious,” he said. He added that the Iban also invented the ‘candas’ since there were no spoon and fork at that time available in the jungle; and the food then became a delicacy.

Many people thought that ambuyat was a dish discovered recently during the Second World War because of the hardship of the Japanese occupation, many were forced to eat sago as a staple diet. However sago as a Brunei food has been described at least 800 years ago. Sago must have been invented as a food in Brunei much earlier than that.

One of the earliest known written descriptions of sago as a food in Brunei was written in a Chinese book entitled “Zhu Fan Zhi” (Records of Foreign Countries) written by Zhao Rukuo of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 to 1279). It was the only document in which foreign countries southwest of China in the Song Dynasty were comprehensively depicted.

The book covered more than 60 countries and each entry included the geographical position, customs, native products, trade of the countries.

Zhao Rukuo himself is the eighth generation descendant of Emperor Taizong, the second Emperor of the Song Dynasty. He was the head of the custom house of Fujian Prefecture.

In a long entry about Brunei, Zhao Rukuo described the location of Brunei and its 14 prefectures which are fenced with wooden boards with more than 10,000 residents living within. The King’s house was described to be covered with patra leaves while all the other houses are roofed with grass. He sat on a throne called the ‘Ruan Nang’ and has 500 servants. When he leads his army to fight, the King has more than a hundred warships guarding him. His tableware is mostly made of gold.

However the land does not produce wheat but hemp and rice and people there take sago. Sago was described as something which the local people extract from wild fruits and make a sort of fine powder after filtration and deposition. This was called ‘Sha Hu’ in Chinese or Sago, which can keep one from being hungry. In a later entry, when describing about one of Brunei's then well known export, camphor, the collectors of camphor wearing clothes made of barks, take sago with them as food before entering the mountains.

In later entries from the Chinese records, the sago was continued to be described as part of Brunei’s food. Another book entitled “Sha Yu Zhou Zi Lu” (Records of Alien Lands) written by Yan Gongjian of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644), a Xingren (an official who was in charge of sending envoys abroad), wrote about sago which the local people extract to make a fine powder through filtration and deposition.

Sago continued to be important towards Brunei’s trade even by the early 1900s. When Limbang was forcibly taken by Rajah Brooke in 1890, the Sarawak authorities imposed export duties on all goods exported to Brunei. The Kampong Ayer folks had depended on Limbang for food, clothing and materials for housing and fishing. With the export tax in place, those goods became expensive that the Brunei people could no longer afford to obtain them from Limbang.

Many Brunei people especially traders such as collectors of jungle produce, found their livelihoods undermined. The situation was so dire that all four sago producing factories in Brunei Town were forced to close down because they were no longer able to compete against the sago producing factories in Sarawak, as the Sarawak factories were able to obtain rumbia tree trunks free of export duty.

For Tutong and Belait districts, sago played an important part in the districts’ trade. In McArthur’s report of 1904, he described the produce of both districts to be consisting of ‘sago, getah, rotan and hides’. McArthur estimated that the sago trade based on estimates from the shops at Kuala Balai, which was then the capital of Belait District was worth some $20,000 per annum and around $15,000 in Tutong.

Today, not much remained of the sago trade in Brunei. The sole producing factory is in Ukong, Tutong. It no longer uses manual labour and is highly mechanised. The tree trunk once trimmed of its bark, would be stripped and cut into pieces. The pith would be brought to the factory to be processed. Today’s piths are processed using machines and is very hygienic.

Not long ago, the trunks were crushed by stepping on them manually using one’s bare feet. During the crushing, untreated river water will be poured on the crushed trunk to extract the sago juice which will then be collected in a big wooden tub or pot.

Today, the process to crush the trunks would be done with a machine with the normal clean treated water supplied by the government. The sago juice is no longer collected in a wooden tub but in a tile lined tub. The juice is then dried and once evaporated will the white powder sago remained to be extracted.

That factory is now a remnant of what once was Brunei’s staple diet.

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