Sunday, October 08, 2006

From Brunei, with love and an empty stomach

We reached the Bruneian city of Muara on a nice Saturday mid- morning, with stomachs rumbling like thunder. The last meal we had was at about six in the morning and an extremely light breakfast suffices not the famished glutton. We were received cordially by our counterparts who had invited us for cocktails followed by lunch. The cocktails consisted of excellent melon juice (a very mysterious melon at that) and lots of sweet peanuts flavored with what seemed and tasted like dried fish. Not that I particularly care for anything vaguely alcoholic; it seemed strange that liquor was banned in the country and people used their passports discreetly to jump over to neighbouring Malaysia for a peg or two!!

We entered the grand buffet hall with its tapestries and decorations which would have cost a fortune and seemed straight out of some fairy tale. The food was neatly laid out and seemed a feast for hungry eyes and famished stomachs. (The cocktail had served its purpose- as an appetizer, if not anything) It really is tricky being a vegetarian especially if one can’t identify with the food served or speak the local lingo. I served what I prudently considered was to my taste which included rice, something green which resembled greens and spinach to a great extent and a mysterious red sauce that appeared like a sinister tomato sauce. My carnivorous mates seemed much better off piling their plates high with chicken and fish and some rice to fill the non-existent empty spaces.

Seated there in the long table, I realized I wasn’t the only one not to relish my food. Call it what you want but the spinach (?) I had served was quite bland and tasteless whichever way one might imagine. I looked around to find quite a number of my friends looking with consternation at their prey and the other half toying at it with their cutlery in what seemed to be a test of might. (Clearly they hadn’t eaten a morsel) I went about my unfinished business in an executive manner to leave behind only the strange tasting tomato sauce in my plate. That bewildered look of consternation which one presumably gets after tasting raw flesh and hide had very quickly infected almost every familiar face. The best part about the lunch was the dessert (getting our just desserts, were we?) which consisted of sago flavored with coconut milk (sorry, I forget its native name) and tasted rather good.

On our way back we came to some unanimous conclusions that the red sauce was indeed raw prawn sauce, (and that I had mistaken it to be tomatoes) the chicken was raw, the greens were indeed grass from the jungle, (or possibly from the freshly mowed lawn) and that the company food was indeed much better and in fact one of the best.

The story doesn’t end here with many of us achieving much required gastronomical nirvana. A couple of days later some adventurous souls went about trying their hand at the local cuisine. Here’s their condensed account of how they achieved theirs. There is a native dish (also their national dish) that goes by the name of ‘ambuyaat’ that’s made of sago (again) and a dozen other gravies in smaller cups. Somebody with common sense realized that it would be better to place an order for one and maybe later go about binging for more. And so our explorers went about their way armed with chopsticks and an empty stomach. The first mouthful was heavenly with the taste of the gravy lingering for a long time. It was at the second or maybe the third mouthful that many of them realized that the sago globs stuck to their throats like leeches refusing impertinently to be swallowed down. It was also at the same instant when the magical taste of the gravy vanished and nirvana attained. They did what they had to, under the given circumstances; which was to finish off the ambuyaat for it had cost them a dearly sum of 20$. Considering the fact that one plate of idli vada cost 2$, which was incidentally the same as a glass of fresh juice, it was indeed a princely sum

Perhaps a little more explanation is required. Brunei has been built only on oil and some other local produce like rice and some tropical fruits. So, with oil come comfort and nice roads and even silent cushy cars that speed around at 190 odd kmph. But with oil also come a very high cost of living which we Indians and travellers are quite unaccustomed to; resorting to conversion and referring everything with the thirty odd Indian rupees that make up one Brunei dollar.

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