I have to admit that food is one of my passions, and one of the things that I found most difficult to adapt to (showing what an easy time I actually had of the whole experience of moving abroad). There is some great food in Brunei, although a predominance of rice which took some getting used to, and I have found some new favourites which I shall undoubtedly miss when we move away – fried mee (noodles), sambal (spicy fish sauce – a love it or hate it accompaniment to many local dishes), fresh mangos, papaya and rambutan.
There are also many downsides: very few high quality restaurants; questionable food hygiene – in restaurants and shops/supermarkets alike; items frequently out of stock – again in both restaurants and shops, such as McDonalds recently running out of beef due to import problems (“finished already” is a common phrase when you try to order in a restaurant). Not to mention all the bugs which you rarely have problems with in the UK, especially weevils and ants, which means that all perishable items have to be safely locked up in Tupperware boxes or stored in the freezer. When we first got here I remember being in despair when I put some rice into a pan and minutes later was confronted with a sea of floating weevils (some people just fish them out but I haven’t reached that level – yet!) I used to tear my hair out when I set off to the supermarket with my list of ingredients from carefully planned recipes only to find at least one key ingredient from each list was either out of stock or in a sorry state. And I still approach the meat counter with disgust when I see chicken juices smeared over the bag that is handed to me or vegetables weighed on the same set of scales at raw meat. Food hygiene is just not always understood.
Eating out can be a similar minefield and choosing where to go is done by recommendation. Each restaurant or eating establishment is given a rating – A being the best, the worst I have seen is D (street vendors are not monitored, or if they are it is done very infrequently and no punishments are offered to those who aren’t sanitary apart from being moved on). Unfortunately, the rating also reflects the facilities which the restaurant has so it is not a clear indication of how clean the restaurant is, for example if somewhere has male and female toilets, air conditioning, function rooms etc then it may score an A even if it’s hygiene standards are not 100%. A small café without all the facilities may score lower even though it is cleaner. And who knows how often these places are inspected. Recently someone was served raw chicken nuggets from a Pizza Hut (on the children’s menu if that wasn’t bad enough). Having said that, there are plenty of decent places to eat if you exercise caution. But we do tend to treat each holiday as an exercise in eating all the fine food we can get hold of!
That brings me to items we cannot easily obtain. Brunei is a Muslim country, and as such all food must be ‘halal’. Expats can still obtain alcohol through a special licence afforded to the company and from across the border (though all supplies are limited, the allowance is generous enough). There are times when the supply runs out and of course it can only be consumed in the individual’s home which means house parties are the norm for entertainment. It also means that some items you take for granted (like vanilla essence) are also prohibited. It may not sound much but when you are used to using it as a baking staple it can be quite frustrating (home baking is a must – many of the locals are prone to diabetes and the cakes for sale here are low in sugar as a result – not a good taste!) There is also no pork in most restaurants and only a limited supply in a few shops – we tend to go without most of the time. You do get used to it, but again we tend to gorge ourselves when we visit home!
That brings me onto the last point I want to make about food in Brunei – to quote the slogan of a local bakery – ‘Delicious, mouth-watering, unexpected’! You can bite into a sweet cake to find a sausage in the middle of it, or some other equally hideous surprise, curry is served for breakfast and don’t get me started on all the durian flavoured items – a fruit which smells and tastes like sweaty feet (although not one I’ve yet dared to try). At least food here is always an adventure, but sometimes I long for the simple taste of home.