viber image 2019 11 20 17 48 01 1 - Cooking Ambuyat with Chef Rezal

By Chef Gene Gonzalez

I met Chef Rezal for the first time during a briefing of judges and officials at the World Halal Cooking Championships, which was held at the International Convention Center in Brunei. Originally from Singapore, Chef Rezal was part of the committee that ran the competition and mediated between the kitchen judges and tasting judges.

Through his stints at top hotels in Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei, he climbed the corporate hospitality ladder and mentored several young chefs with his experience. While working together, we found our common interests in martial arts, traditional recipes, and knowledge of wild and foraged food. Upon hearing about my curiosity in ambuyat, the national dish of Brunei, he quickly invited me to the cafe of the Rizqun International Hotel where he is the executive chef.

twirliing with the sticks to create a mound 1 - Cooking Ambuyat with Chef RezalTwirling with the sticks to create a mound

The strengths of this cafe’s lunch buffet are the local dishes, which are authentic in flavor and can be adjusted based on foreign preferences. Even the buffet’s selection of regional desserts has a local touch. The dozen-selection homemade ice cream is a hit among children.

Anyway, I did my homework on the mentioned Bruneian national dish and found out it is a staple made from sago. Its origins are from Borneo. It was once tediously harvested from the trunks of the sago palm but is now more commonly taken from the starch of sago balls. This dish gained popularity during the Second World War as it became a substitute for rice, which was in shortage.

Ambuyat is neutral in flavor. It is a good accompaniment for spicy and zesty dips. The somewhat glutinous and gooey translucent starch is listed as one of the world’s strangest food (it looks something like our Philippine kalamay or tikoy, though the two are sweet).

Chef Rezal gave me a short lesson in its preparation by first pouring hot water on the already hydrated starch to cook and mix it quickly, stimulating its glutinous character and turning it translucent. Once a runny state is achieved, a bamboo-like, chopstick-like tool is used to scoop out the starch, which is then twirled to form a small mound to be dipped in a variety of sauces.

preparing sago starch with hot water 2 1 - Cooking Ambuyat with Chef RezalPreparing sago starch with hot water

Many of these sauces are accented with aromatics like ginger, herbs, fermented fish or shrimp, and spices with just the slightest hint of chili. The fermented sauces are especially fascinating. Examples are durian, sambal belacan of fermented shrimp and chili, mamangan or a jungle fruit puree that tastes like tart mango with lemongrass and ginger, and another sourish fermented jungle fruit sauce called binjai.

As a newbie, I tried twirling the runny ambuyat and learned a technique was needed to be able to mound it on the two chopsticks. I tried all the dips and one of my favorites was the durian, which sort of tastes like miso when fermented and its pungent odor removed. I also liked the freshness of the mamangan with its sour and ripe mango taste that has a twist of ginger and lemongrass flavors.

If one mixes all of these dips, he or she gets a complex-tasting sauce with all these flavors together. So, a fifth dip that is as equally delicious is born. I was a bit surprised and cautious since I had been told not to chew the sago puree but to just swallow it. The dip’s sharp saltiness and bold fermented flavor are tamed by the pliable sago starch that goes down like silk in your throat. This experience is a creamy, umami one.

No wonder these dips are not made fiery hot with chili. They should only be warm to not produce a coughing reflex when sliding down the throat. Once you start, it’s difficult to stop as you enjoy the myriad flavors that linger. That’s what got me hooked. Malay recipes can be available all over, but ambuyat is very Bornean and Bruneian.

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