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Food, Dining, & Drinks in Brunei

Historic Diet

The country of Brunei has a number of indigenous foods common both domestically as well as abroad, although most of these foods were likely from neighboring islands and arrived with early settlers or the winds. Bananas, oranges, and breadfruit are all native to the region, while numerous additional foods arrived to the island with the earliest people to the region.

Among the indigenous and early arriving fruits and vegetables were oranges, bananas, breadfruit, mangos, guavas, durian, taro, cassava, wheat, rice, spinach, garlic, shallots, beans, and melons. Like the diverse plant life, animals were also present in large numbers and some of the most common meats that were historically consumed include chicken, duck, boar, and water buffalo. However, it was the sea life that made up the greatest part of the historic diet from a protein perspective. Mackerel, tuna, red snapper, anchovy, shrimp, and crab are all prevalent in the ocean while carp, catfish, and others are common freshwater fish.

Culinary Influences

Brunei's food is very similar to the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, but as a more homogenous country ethnically, the variety and outside influences seem to be a bit more muted. The earliest introductions arrived via Southeast Asia and the Malay Peninsula, but began their journeys in lands as far as India, China, and even the Middle East. These early arrivals brought new foods like wheat and rice that have been an important part of the diet for thousands of years.

Although earlier waves of traders and immigrants altered the cuisine by bringing individual ingredients to the region, it wasn't until the Indians arrived in the 300s when entirely new dishes were added. Curries arrived in great numbers and after numerous Indians converted to Islam, pork was reduced in the region as well. It wasn't the Indians that spread Islam to Brunei though so pork remained on the menu until Malacca took control over the region in about the 1400s.

The second great early impact came with the Chinese, who brought numerous dishes to the region, but it was soy sauce that made the greatest impact as this makes an essential component to numerous dishes and sauces. Numerous Chinese inspired dishes still exist in the country today, but the influence is rather subtle compared to Malaysia, which is home to numerous ethnic Chinese today.

In the 1500s the Spanish and other Europeans arrived to the region with new foods. Many of these foods came from the Americas via the Spanish, including maize (corn), potatoes, chili peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, and sweet peppers. Foods were also brought in from Europe, primarily from the Portuguese and Dutch, who introduced cheeses, breads, pastries, cakes, and some dairy products, including butter. In addition to the foods the Europeans brought, the region became a center of the spice trade going east and west. This led to the introduction or the increase in popularity of spices and foods from the Far East as well as from India, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

In more recent times, Brunei has continued to receive influences from all over the world as new technologies and food concepts have arrived and been accepted to some degree. Frozen foods and fast foods are growing in popularity, especially in the cities. However, these foods have yet to replace traditional foods, but rather only add to the diet. "Ethnic" restaurants have also arisen in the small country, but not in large numbers.

Staple Foods

Noodles: noodles are a common base in numerous dishes
Rice: rice is cooked in numerous styles and accompanies most meals

Regional Variations, Specialties, & Unique Dishes

Ambuyat: the national dish is a fluffy mixture of sago (a starch from a tree) and water usually served with sauces or side dishes
Mee Goreng/Nasi Goreng: fried noodles and fried rice respectively, these dishes served with vegetables are regular items on most menus

Dining Etiquette

The likelihood of being invited into the home of a local in Brunei is slim to none, however you may find yourself dining with the locals in public or just eating at a restaurant and in all cases you should know the basic etiquette rules.

The first thing to remember is that you are in a Muslim country and with that comes a couple rules you must know and follow. First, dress on the conservatively side (see our Brunei Culture Page for more details). Second, in conservative homes and even some restaurants, it is not acceptable to eat with a person of the opposite sex unless it is your child, sibling, or spouse. While this is rare today, to some conservative Muslims this is important so observe the local restaurant's situation and follow their lead. This makes traveling with anyone of the opposite sex other than immediate family difficult when it comes to eating. Lastly, although it is unlikely that you will encounter pork or alcohol, don't order these items as they are forbidden by Islamic law and you should follow these restrictions while in Brunei.

If meeting locals for a meal punctuality is something to keep in mind, but arriving a few minutes late is common. Before entering a house or restaurant check to see if others have left their shoes at the door; if so you should do the same then greet everyone personally, elders first (although some conservative Muslims don't believe men and women should touch so wait for locals to extend their hand first if they are of the opposite sex). In Brunei most people have no issue with a hand shake or the like, but let the local lead in this regard to avoid offense. Prior to sitting down you may be asked to wash your hands; follow others and do as they do.

Let your local counterpart arrange the seating and once seated you may be asked to serve yourself first. Food can be served family style or as individual plates and accepting all food that is offered to you is a must. Once the host invites you to begin eating be prepared for a number of situations. Often the people will eat with both a fork and spoon; the spoon is generally held in the right hand and the fork is used to push food onto the spoon. Other times a knife will be offered or you will be expected to eat with your hand. No matter what is present, only use your right hand to eat and only bring food to your mouth with your right hand, even if using a fork or spoon.

When you finish eating, place your fork and spoon face down on the plate, with the spoon crossed over top of the fork. You may again be expected to wash your hands, so again, follow the lead of others. If you are eating in a restaurant, check to see if a service charge has been added to your bill; it usually is in restaurants catered to foreigners. If there is no service charge added, an additional tip is not expected.

Celebrations & Events

The festivals in the small country of Brunei are numerous and many of these celebrations boast food as the center of the celebration. Most of these events are religious events although a couple have secular origins.

In Brunei, Eid al Fitr is commonly referred to as Hari Raya Aidilfitri, which is a celebration that occurs immediately after Ramadan; Ramadan is a religious holiday that requires fasting for 30 days. Hari Raya Aidilfitri is celebrated with satays (kebabs), ketupat (rice cakes), and numerous street foods, including cakes, pastries, and fruits.

The second major religious food celebration is Eid al Adha, or better known as either Hari Raya Aidiladha or Hari Raya Koran. This event is celebrated after a pilgrim returns from haj, the mandatory journey for every able Muslim to go to Mecca. This celebration is usually marked by the slaughter of a goat or cow.

Other food celebrations in Brunei that do not involve religion are Chinese New Year and the Sultan's birthday. Chinese New Year is celebrated almost exclusively by the country's ethnic Chinese and involves numerous ethnic Chinese Foods & Drinks. The Sultan's birthday (the current Sultan's birthday falls on July 15) is marked with numerous street vendors selling numerous items including fruits, cakes, satays, and local drinks.

Drinks

When you're in Brunei don't miss out on some of their local drinks, which may not be original, but can be quite tasty. Coconut milk and fruit juices are local and often served fresh, neither of which is to be missed. Tea and coffee are also popular drinks in Brunei and can be easily found. Other drinks, such as milk and soft drinks are also available in the country.

As a primarily Muslim country, Brunei has no alcohol available and it is illegal to consume in the country.

The tap water is generally safe to drink in Brunei. If you do drink the water (or the ice or salads washed in the tap water), many people may have trouble adjusting to the local tap water as it will most certainly be different from what your system is used to if you are not from the region.

This page was last updated: October, 2012