Fostering family ties with ambuyat feasts

Sticky goodness: 'Ambuyat', Brunei's national dish, is basically tasteless but when eaten with Tahai (dried fish) soup, Lalap (fried seasoned meat), ulam, sambal belacan, cacah and other side dishes, it is difficult to stop. Picture: Agencies

Saturday, February 21, 2009

MANY have asked about the difference between ambulung and ambuyat. Some of the younger generation in the Sultanate may know what is ambuyat but not ambulung.

Ambulung is processed sago, derived from the Rumbia tree which grows near the jungle's riverbank; it is found throughout Borneo, including Brunei. Ambuyat is prepared by adding hot water to ambulung and stirring it until it becomes a sticky glue-like porridge.

Hjh Norazikah Bte Midun, a former employee of a small family factory in Tutong which makes sago, explained, "When a Rumbia tree is old and has grown big enough, we will chop the trunk, peel off the skin and take out the white centre (pith)."

She added that if they were lucky, they might find the edible yellowish coloured sago caterpillar, which is called utun in the Dusun language or hambatar in the Kedayan language. She said that some rural people eat the caterpillar fresh from the trunk and chew it with raw sago. "I prefer to cook the caterpillar first and eat it with rice," she said. She added that the caterpillar taste more or less like prawns.

Norazikah added that the pith would be brought to the factory to be processed. A long time ago, she added, the process was done manually instead of using machines. "During the old days, the long white trunk will be crushed by stepping on it with bare feet; this activity is normally done by women," she said. During the stepping, river water will be poured on the trunk to extract the sago juice and which will then be collected in a big pot. She added that the juice would then be dried for a few days under the hot sun. Once the juice has evaporated, only white powder will be left in the pot, ready to be packed or cooked. This processed product is called ambulung.

The younger generation may regard the traditional way of producing ambulung as non-hygienic. But nowadays, with modern technology, sago can be produced commercially in hygienic conditions and at a faster rate.

The young may also ask how their ancestors found that there were sago in the Rumbia tree; and also how they came up with a way to cook the ambulung by stirring hot water in it to make it into a glue-like substance? Why not boil or fry it?

Hj Markandi Hj Kuris, former Malay Literature lecturer in Maktab Duli Pengiran Muda Al-Muhtadee Billah, said that according to some beliefs and stories told by senior citizens, there were a lot of different ethnic groups who lived in the jungles and one of them is the Iban. A group of the Iban were cutting Rumbia trees to look for caterpillars. "Some of them ate the caterpillars fresh from the tree while the sago was stuck to the caterpillar's body and they noticed that the sago was also delicious to eat," he said. He added that they came up with an idea to bring the whole trunk back home 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 since it was like glue, the Iban then invented a candas (bamboo joint chopstick) since there were no spoon and fork at that time available in the jungle; and the food then became a delicacy. He added that, when rice productivity decreased due to various circumstances, these villagers preferred ambuyat as their staple food instead of tapioca or yam. "Some believe that, if one expresses a desire to eat ambuyat, he or she must fulfill it; and not delay this desire. Or else something bad may happen, touch wood," he said.

And now, this food has became Brunei's famous food icon, favoured by Bruneians of all ages and used to promote the tourism industry.

Ambuyat is rather bland and tasteless. To make it tastier, a variety of dishes is eaten together with the ambuyat such as Tahai (dried fish) soup, Lalap (fried seasoned meat), ulam, sambal belacan, cacah and other side dishes. Restaurants such as Aminah Arif, Seri Balai Food court and others promote this dish not only to locals but also to tourists.

Hj Aisamuddin Hj Ali, 26, said that he loves to eat the ambuyat with his family. He said that eating ambuyat together indirectly strengthen family ties. "We eat rice on our own plate, while all of us share the ambuyat in a big bowl and eat it using our own canda," he said.The Brunei Times