Sunday, November 1, 2009

Brunei - Sultan for a day

I turned 40. I don’t know what the difference is between year 39 and 40, and it may be small, but there is a difference. In some ways I feel more mature and confident like I can be who I am and the hell with everything else. But on the other hand I feel older – I’m not a thirty-something anymore – and the next big milestone is 50. Sure it’s in ten years but the last ten years flew by at the speed of light.

In preparation for my big day I decided to get some beauty treatments. I got a facial, a pedicure, my hair colored and my hair cut shorter. It was a small attempt to fight the aging process as if I were going to wake up on my birthday and actually look older. Still, it was nice to go into the next decade feeling refreshed with new skin and hair.

As it turned out I had a wonderful birthday thanks to my loving and supportive friends and relatives. On the big day Kevin mentioned that he wanted to cook me dinner. Last year he steamed lobster, but this year I said to him, “ If you want to cook me dinner then cook me a Brunei dinner.”

“Brunei?” he asked. “What do I have to cook?”

As luck would have it, for Kevin, the Brunei dish I had picked out was not a hard one to make. But instead of telling him this right off the bat I said, “Prawn and Petai Sambal.” I waited for his face to fall before I showed him the recipe and assured him it was a simple one.

That night my dad called to wish me a happy birthday and I told him that Kevin cooked me a Brunei meal. Dad told me that he has been to Brunei (he’s been to 65 countries, the last he counted). He told me the Islamic country is very strict. Everything shuts down by seven and there is no alcohol allowed. Not a good place to celebrate your 40th, apparently.

Brunei, located on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, is one of the smallest countries on earth. For a little sliver of a place it has some of the largest oil fields in Southeast Asia and the Sultan is one of the richest men in the world.

The capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (try saying that three times), is adorned with beautiful mosques. It looks like it came from the pages of the fairytale book Aladdin. One would expect to find a genie and a cave full of jewels there.

The cuisine of Brunei is heavily influenced by its neighbors: Singapore and Malaysia; it resembles Chinese food. They eat mostly fish mixed with spices and served with rice or noodles. Many of the dishes also include coconut milk and chili. Meat is expensive and so little is eaten. Meat must be slaughtered according to Islamic law or it is banned from coming into the country.

Kevin did a very nice job cooking the prawn and petai sambal dish. I’m not sure he’ll volunteer again unless it’s a special occasion. But I rather enjoyed watching him cook as he tried to squeeze little seeds out of the pods of green beans (we used green beans instead of petai, a flat green bean with an odd smell). He made a paste with sugar, cooking wine and sesame oil. He cooked the paste, and then the shrimp, until pink and served it with rice.

It looked delicious but I wasn’t hungry. My dear friend Lynn made me a full course meal for my birthday lunch. Yet, I ate it, of course, and I savored the last hours of my special day. I had eaten well and not lifted a finger. I felt like the Sultan of Brunei.

Prawn and Petai Sambal

1 bunch petai (use the seeds inside the pods)
500g prawns (shelled and deveined and seasoned with 1 tsp sugar)
1 TBSP assam tamarind paste mixed with 3 TBSP water
1 cup water
1/2 tsp salt
4 TBSP oil

Paste Ingredients - pounded into a paste

120 ml water
salt and pepper to taste
pinch of sugar
2 tsp cooking wine
sesame oil

Heat oil and fry pounded paste until fragrant. Stir in assam tararind juice and water. Bring to a boil. Add in prawns and cook until pink. Add in petai and stirfry until bright green. Stir in salt. Serve with rice.

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