Et tu, Brunei?

October 3, 2015

image courtesy of

Brunei is an interesting place, a seemingly Middle Eastern-style Islamic pseudo-monarchy, way out far East and isolated on the edge of an island. This may come as a bit of a shock to you (as it did to me), to find out that Brunei, despite having a famous Sultan, is NOT in the Middle East. It’s funny because if you had asked me, I wouldn’t have known where to place it on a map, but certainly would not have guessed it was near the Philippines.

Located on the north side of the island of Borneo, in fact, Brunei really is all tucked away and easy to miss or forget about. Although Borneo (which takes its name from Brunei) is the 3rd largest island in the world, Brunei occupies just 1% of that area. Slightly larger than Delaware, it would be the 49th biggest state, and yet has been ranked as high as the 5th richest nation in the world. It is also that high in per capita purchasing power, largely due to the large deposits of petroleum and natural gas, which were discovered in the early 20th century.

The national language is Malay, as it is for Malaysia and Indonesia, who also share Borneo, and there are more speakers of this worldwide than of other popular tongues such as: French, Vietnamese, Korean, Urdu, and Italian. All would seem well aside from a brief 3 ½ year occupation by the Japanese post-Pearl Harbor attack, but there is more to it.

Despite a high standard of living, only behind Singapore in the region, and very much like them, law penalties are unreasonably harsh. When the revised law code was announced in 2014, many including the UN became worried at the list of offenses which could incur the death penalty such as: “Rape, adultery, sodomy, extramarital sexual relations for Muslims, insulting any verses of the Quran…,blasphemy, declaring oneself a prophet or non-Muslim, and murder “. Although their legal system is based on the Britain’s, who had a heavy influence in molding modern Brunei, Sharia law can supersede many rulings or decisions. Stoning is also listed as an acceptable punishment in many cases, but to this date I do not believe any stoning or capital executions have occurred.

In addition, the aforementioned Sultan wields tremendous power in all facets of government. Despite having a parliament, all real power lies with the Sultan, and he and the royal family are sacrosanct. It is an absolute monarchy which no one questions and which has existed in a seemingly unbroken line since 1368. There was also a Sultan Muhammad Ali in 1660, which I had to mention because it’s awesome. And yes before you ask, there are both butterflies and bees on the island of Borneo.

Bruneian cuisine is very similar to that of Malaysia, Singapore, and other nearby countries.  Beef is expensive and thus avoided, as is pork due to halal restrictions. Fish and rice, as well as noodles and some types of indigenous deer are common. A peculiar and unique dish to Brunei is called Ambuyat. It is made from the trunk of a palm tree and is a sticky, slimy goop. Although this is the national dish, I did not make it and I will not apologize, go look up a picture of it.

Instead I made a Bruneian Beriani, which is a chicken and rice dish with a native spice blend. I used a mini food processor to grind the spices and nuts together but a mortar and pestle would also work well. The combination of the seasonings gave the chicken an amazingly earthy flavor and texture. The bright yellow from the turmeric was a nice visual and provided great contrast on the plate.

Turmeric keeps popping up in many dishes and I am beginning to develop quite a fondness for it. In its raw form it is a rhizome that looks like ginger. Long before it was used in cooking; it mainly served as a potent dye for obvious reasons. As a staple of herbal medicine, it has historically been used to treat many ailments of the stomach and liver. After recently injuring my back, I found it listed as an anti-inflammatory and whether it is a placebo effect or not, the times when I have eaten it do seem to be accompanied by an increased abating of symptoms.  You be the judge! As a side dish, I made coconut rice which was delicious and the creaminess from the coconut milk which permeates the rice was a perfect counter point to the spiced nature of the chicken.

I will see you next time in Bulgaria, where we will sadly not be eating bulgur wheat…




Bruneian Beriani

2-3 servings


2 tsp cinnamon

1/6 tsp clove

1/4 tsp ginger

1/2 cup shallot (or onion +garlic)

1.5 tsp salt

14 g (.5 oz) almonds

1/2 tbs poppy seeds

1/2 tsp turmeric

enough oil/butter to cook onions



  1. Cut chicken into pieces.
  2. Grind together garlic, ginger, chillies, poppy seeds, cashew nuts and almonds.
  3. Heat oil/butter and fry cloves, cinnamon, shallots.
  4. Add in the chicken pieces, 1 tsp salt, and ground ingredients.
  5. Stir to mix and cook covered for 10 minutes.
  6. Add in salt.


Easy Coconut Rice

3 servings


3/4 cup medium or long grain rice of your choice

1 1/2 cup coconut milk (I like reduced fat)

1/2 cup water



Follow the standard rice directions per your rice choice.

Make sure to add more water if needed to prevent from burning during cooking.

Use a lower temperature to cook the rice then normal to account for thicker liquid and

lower burning point.