Brunei: Fish and chips and sago in the Maori way

By Jim Eagles

Jim Eagles discovers a Kiwi concept being adapted as part of a new industry in Brunei.

Tiny fillets of fish, dried into crisps and sago paste quick-fried into tasty morsels, are among the snack delights of Brunei. Photo / Jim Eagles
Tiny fillets of fish, dried into crisps and sago paste quick-fried into tasty morsels, are among the snack delights of Brunei. Photo / Jim Eagles

The woman sat serenely on the floor in her long robe and headscarf and filleted one side of a tiny, tiny fish. Then she flipped it over and filleted the other side. Then she filleted an other fish. And another.

"She will do this all day," said Azman, the headman's son, who was showing us round this traditional Brunei fishing village, Kampong Sungai Matan.

"In a day she will fillet thousands of fish."

As we watched the pile of fish, each about 5cm long, was steadily converted into fillets the size of potato chips.

When there were enough of them they were taken outside, laid out on a drying rack about one metre square, and left in the sun.

"Depending on how hot it is the fish will take two days to dry or maybe four days," said Azman.

"Then it will be packed up to be sold at the market.

"Look," and he pointed at a table in the corner covered with ziplock bags full of dried fish.

"Try some. See how they taste."

Slightly apprehensively I nibbled on a small brown fillet. It was crunchy and fishy. Not bad. I nibbled a bit more. The wrinkled old woman sitting at the back of the room supervising things nodded and smiled approvingly.

Kampong Sungai Matan, is a traditional fishing village built on piles over the Brunei River, on the outskirts of the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

Although its oil and gas have made Brunei one of the richest countries, it is looking ahead to the time 50 years ahead when the fields start to run dry, and is developing alternative sources of income such as tourism.

After hearing that this approach was being promoted by their revered Sultan, Azman, who was already involved with Brunei Tourism, and his father, as headman, "sat down to discuss how our village could play its part," said Azman.

"I had been to New Zealand and saw how the Maori villages were operated, allowing visitors to see their culture in action, so we thought we could do the same."

With the approval of the community - about 700 people living in 66 homes - a village experience tour was organised.

"We have limited it to no more than 50 people a day," said Azman, "so it does not interfere with the village too much."

Our group, from the expedition ship Orion II, had been welcomed to the village by children in traditional costumes throwing rose petals and invited into the headman's house for a performance of local songs, dances and drum music. Now we were being given a snapshot of daily village life.

After seeing the tiny fish being filleted Azman asked if we would like to see how they were caught.

A young man was summoned from a nearby house, bringing with him a throwing net, which he expertly flicked off the wooden walkway running along the outside of the village and into the river. When he hauled the net in, sure enough, there were a couple of the same tiny fish.

This activity seemed to provoke some splashing in a string of floating fishponds, made from netting and wood, moored below the walkway.

"That," said Azman, "is where we hold the bigger fish the fishermen catch until they are needed."

Meanwhile, I had noticed a man further along the walkway hauling up a sort of string bag from the water. Inside were several largish crabs which he happily displayed.

Azman said that in season the villagers also caught prawns, some of which were sold raw, others pounded and mixed with spices to make prawn paste.

There weren't any prawns, it being the wrong time of the year, but in the house where the fish were being filleted were also several containers of paste.

"Very smelly,'' said Azman, as he removed the lid.

He was right.

"Shows it's very good."

In a hut on the bank, two elderly men were using a device that looked like a two-handed saw to operate a sort of giant grater, made of hundreds of nails knocked into a slab of wood, to scrape sawdust from a sago palm.

Sago seems to be the staple food for locals, being mixed with other ingredients to produce dishes.

We got a demonstration of sago's versatility in one of the village houses where a woman was cooking cakes - green ones which tasted of sweetcorn and brown ones that were like doughnuts - made mainly from sago flour.

Further evidence of the importance of sago came back in the headman's house where two women showed how to mix the flour with water - first some cold, then more hot - to produce a gluey paste about four times the volume of the original.

With the use of chopsticks it was possible to pick up a blob of glue, dip it into a sauce, and - hey presto - a tasty mouthful.

I decided to try the sago with the prawn paste.

"It is very hot," said Azman.

"You may need a fire extinguisher."

It was indeed very hot, and very tasty, so I tried some more, just to prove I could handle the powerful belt of chilli, then asked him, "Where's the fire extinguisher?"

"Aha," he grinned, "you will find some cool drinks through there," and he pointed through to another room in his father's house where a feast had been set out, mainly of traditional dishes but including some untraditional cans of Coke straight out of the fridge.

Just what I needed.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies up to three times daily from New Zealand to Singapore and from there to Bandar Seri Begawan five times a week. The airline's regional SilkAir flies to several destinations in Borneo including three times a week to Kuching, daily to Kota Kinabalu and six times a week to Balikpapan.

Getting around: Orion II has Borneo departures next year in January-February and from July to October. Ten-night fares start from $10,100 a person. For reservations or to obtain a brochure, call Orion Expedition Cruises on 0800 444 462 or see your travel agent.

What to do: Visit Kampong Sungai Matan.

Further information: See bruneitourism.travel.

Jim Eagles visited Brunei with help from Singapore Airlines and Orion Expedition Cruises.

- NZ Herald

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