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Sticky ambuyat brings families together

Update: January, 05/2015 - 16:08

Sticking together: The glutinous goodness of ambuyat.

by Hana Roslan

I tried eating ambuyat alone once and it was a lonely affair.

As I was twirling the sticky glue-like starch (chopsticks used specifically for this) and dipped into with my favourite sauce, I thought to myself, ambuyat is really something that shouldn't be eaten alone.

There are many theories on the origin of ambuyat. Some say it's authentically Bruneian, some say it is not.

Whatever the argument may be, I think one will agree that ambuyat should be eaten with people you're most comfortable with.

Just like eating durian, my family and I revel in our ambuyat gatherings.

I vividly remember one particular Sunday lunch years ago at my grandmother's house.

I come from a big family, and our ambuyat eating affairs have always been one to look forward to.

All my aunts would gather their dishes, which mainly consists of beef curry, rabus ikan (fish stew) , masak lemak pucuk ubi (tapioca shoots in coconut gravy, sometimes added with salty fish) and tumis pakis sambal belacan (fiddlehead ferns in shrimp sauce).

We would also have lalap, a form of beef jerky, stir fried with shallots and belutak, a kind of fermented sausage that's also fried with chilli and onions.

There would also be deep-fried fish or fish marinated in tamarind, a bowl of rice, even fried chicken for those who weren't into eating the ambuyat.

The females in my family would gather in the kitchen cooking their own thing, and my grandma's kitchen was quite small, that sometimes I wondered how my aunts did not end up fighting over who would use the stove to cook their food next.

Twist and shout: Chopsticks or wooden sticks are used to twirl the ambuyat.

The living room would be cleared of the furniture, and would be replaced by long colourful plastic mats that would take up the floor space.

Plates and spoons sit atop these mats, and a washing basin (in case we wanted to eat with our hands, which was most of the time).

The weather would usually be nice and hot outside, but with a hint of breeze because the windows were always open.

All the dishes would be arranged neatly along the mats and everyone would gather as we wait for my grandmother or aunt to finish making the ambuyat.

Ambuyat, the magnificent goo-like substance, would be prepared by the skillful hands of my grandmother, and we would all wait in anticipation while she prepares it.

So how does she prepare it, you ask?

I asked myself the same question as I was trying to prepare this dish when I was in my twenties and studying overseas.

A friend of ours brought some ambulung, the processed sago derived from the Rumbia tree that was used to make ambuyat and we were really excited. We already prepared the classic Bruneian feast in our dorm kitchen (yes, the fish [aste certainly stank up what would be a very English kitchen) and we could not wait for the main ambuyat event.

Only this time, there were no grandmothers to help us prepare. Just young students, who thought they knew what they were doing just by reminiscing the memory of how our female family members used to do it.

So all of us decided to be heroes and tried a hand at making the ambuyat.

One by one, each of us tried, putting in hot water, and then began stirring the mixture, adding a bit more water until its consistency changed.

Only it didn't. And all that was left was muck.

Okay, so that did not work out. And as you can see by my confusing description, mine did not achieve the same consistency as well as my grandmother's.

Our hearts broke as our cravings went to waste and we had to throw the ambulung into the bin.

After that incident, I never really tried making ambuyat again.

Even through that catastrophe, I am reminded once again of my grandmother's nimble fingers as she slowly stirred the ambuyat pot to achieve the desired consistency, I couldn't help but marvel.

Ambuyat making is really an artform!

As my grandmother finished making her ambuyat, all nice and gooey and warm, with just the right texture, we all dug in with our favourite cacah (sauces).

There would be these small bowls prepared for those who want to customise their own sauces. And everyone always had their own version.

Yes, the cacah or sauces are as crucial as creating the ambuyat itself. I like my tempoyak (fermented durian) sauce, with just the right amount of sourness, sweetness and spice.

Some people like their cacah with curry sauce or cincalok (fermented shrimp) and even sambal belacan.

But whatever it is, however you like it, it is the accompanying sauce that makes that first bite (or swallow) of the ambuyat absolutely…momentous.

Thinking about these memories I have of ambuyat, I cannot help but wonder if my children will ever have experience like this. And the worrying part is that I don't know much of anyone in my generation who can actually perfect the art of menumpah (a term used to describe the making of ambuyat).

Maybe it's time I try making ambuyat again?

Nowadays, people go to restaurants to get their ambuyat fix. But not me, I cherish my ambuyat moments even though we hardly sit on mats to eat ambuyat anymore.

But eating ambuyat is so much more than just eating. In a way it is sort of symbolic how the ambuyat has to bind its particles for its deliciousness to work, a bit like how families always sticking together.

See what I did there.

Although one might argue that starch and rich coconut sauces and fried foods could be hazardous to one's health in the long run, that was the last on our mind as my family members and I sat there, drenched in sweat, gulping our ambuyat.

Because we did not care about that, we just wanted to be together. — Brunei Times

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