25 Feb 2013
You know, there are some foods which totally lack culinary merit but are widely popular because they come under the convenient-yet-attractive label of being a territory’s unique dish. Hakone’s eggs boiled in sulphuric vapours (which ta-dah!, taste like boiled eggs) and pig testicle sashimi (no kidding) are premium examples. Mediocrity is okay as long as it’s one of a kind, it seems.
And now, adding on to this list is Ambuyat, a Bruneian delicacy, which yes, is very authentic and unique – I don’t recall seeing it in neighbouring Malaysia or Indonesia. However, calling Ambuyat mediocre would be extremely flattering and I’m not being biased here because technically, Ambuyat is tasteless.
In essence, it’s a pot of white sticky, slimy goo made of sago, and I have to re-emphasise this again – it tastes of absolutely nothing. If all your life you’d thought that things like water and saliva are the benchmark of this nothing taste, then sampling Ambuyat is going to be a life-changing moment – nothing tastes more nothing than Ambuyat.
To spice things up (literally), the flavourless sago is dipped into a sauce so what you’re effectively tasting is the sauce itself. I got chilli sauce though I’d heard that some people were served a durian version, much to their added misery (durians are awesome to me though; I’m Malaysian see).
To transfer some of the sago out and transform it into a bite-sized wad, the chopstick-like utensil in the first picture is used. Me being Chinese, I put these ‘chopsticks’ into the pot and lifted a portion up like lifting noodles, only for it to fall back inside. I did this for several times until I gave up and asked a waitress for help. It was amusing; Malaysia and Brunei are next-door neighbours but I felt like an alien on a different planet.
It turned out that upon lifting, the ‘chopsticks’ need to be rotated a few times to wrap the sago into a wad. I instantly got back to trying it and voila, my first Ambuyat serving!
Describing the taste is simple superimposition of sago and sauce; I was eating chilli paste which was slimy and stuck to a corner of my mouth. Instinctively I chewed it, only to sago-fy my tooth cavities, and as the teeth split the wad into smaller bits, they occupied the other corners of my mouth and it felt uncomfortable with all that stickiness and whatnot.
And the main point: it didn’t taste good. It’s a no-brainer, really. No one eats mere sauce as a meal. The first try was enough to convince me that this was going to be a chore. And the magnitude of this chore was as a big as the pot sitting in front of me, filled to the brim with uneaten goo. But my conscience nudged me to finish it. I had to try.
And so I tried, wad after wad. Each trial was a trial, emotionally speaking. It was a huge burden which got worse when the same waiter told me that the sago shouldn’t be chewed and instead swallowed directly. Double whammy, bad idea – whatever little taste the wads had didn’t have time to register on my palate and my throat got stuck and constipated. I switched back to chewing.
Then halfway through, I started to improvise to improve things a little. Maybe, just maybe I could make the dish tastier. I got creative – I wrapped the side dishes (vegetables, fried chicken etc) inside the sago. This could be some sort of chicken/vege dumpling which might actually taste good.
It didn’t, thanks to the sago.
And so, after eating as much as my body could allow, I decided that enough is enough. From the looks of it, I had eaten less than one percent of the pot but I couldn’t take it anymore. I wasn’t alone – all the other reviews I’ve read had a very early bad ending.
It was quite an experience though, eating something this weird and bland. Like I’d mentioned earlier, you could eat this while in Brunei to get an authentic, crazy local experience. However, it isn’t cheap – I paid about BNR 15-20 (USD 11-15).
So I’d recommend trying it with a group of people to share the cost (and misery). It’ll be fun to see the look on everyone’s faces while suffering away. Plus the more people there are, the higher the chance of actually finishing the pot. Considering how terrible Ambuyat is, this would actually a remarkable feat.