I don’t know many people who could cope with the logistics of having 100,000 strangers to lunch. Then again, I don’t know many who live in a palace with 1,788-room. Hassanal Bolkiah, the 29th Sultan of Brunei, has presided over his oil-rich, rainforest-clad state – a tiny enclave of northern Borneo – for more than forty years, and is a man familiar with immoderation. His garages, you’ll have heard, are reportedly home to more than 500 Mercedes, 360 Ferraris, 175 Jaguars and 160 Porsches, as well as two 747s with gold-plated furniture. And seeing as you ask, he does a pretty good buffet.
For three days each year, at the culmination of Ramadan, the Sultan opens the Istana Nurul Iman Palace to meet and feed his public. More than 30,000 locals and visitors arrive each day, banqueting on a gut-bulging mountain of Bruneian specialties before queuing through marbled halls to shake hands with the Royal Family. I happened to be in the country and it felt churlish not to join in.
The experience was memorable. On arrival, I followed the queues passing through metal detectors and thermal scanners – lest any flu germs should enter the imperial residence – and joined the feasting throng. There were some two dozen food stations, variously serving up buttered rice with cashew nuts, beef rendang, herb-roasted chicken, sautéed prawns with lemongrass, squid balls, lamb kuzi and vegetable pickles. I picked up cutlery (crest-embossed, naturally) and found myself ushered to a spot at one of the hundred-plus tables. The food was plated on china, and matched its billing.
Finally, through double doors, I reached the inner sanctum: deep-pile carpets, crystal hangings and the scent of real, inordinate wealth
Brunei is a nation that lives on its stomach. The sale of alcohol is forbidden, and some cruel souls have suggested that there’s little to do in the country but eat. This is unfair, although with a cuisine combining Malay, Chinese, Arab and Indian influences, not to mention a few heady tangs of its own, it would be no hardship were it true. From the turmeric-basted fish being hawked from street grills to the tom yum ‘steamboat’ tureens puffing spicy clouds over the riverside, the transient aromas of the capital city (Bandar Seri Begawan, but you knew that) turn a market stroll into a kind of endurance test.
Back to the palace. Well sated, and after rounding off lunch with custard cake – and why not – I joined the masses in line. There are three hours of colonnaded arcades, plush halls and floral arrangements. Finally, through double doors, I reached the inner sanctum: deep-pile carpets, crystal hangings and the scent of real, inordinate wealth. The Sultan stood at the head of the line-up in a sharply tailored jacket and tie. He is slight, but has the hyper-real presence of the world-famous. Nine other male family members were present. Next to him was his heir, the Oxford-educated Crown Prince Al-Muhtadee Billah. Further along the notoriously louche Prince Jefri, now 55 but still wearing the smooth, vulpine look of a born playboy.
What do you say to the Sultan of Brunei? I’m not quite sure. The words that came out of my mouth were “Hello, good to meet you,” which engendered a non-committal regal half-smile. He has a good handshake – just firm enough. I made my way along the line, exchanging greetings with the ten richest men I’ll ever meet. Upon leaving the room, everyone who has queued is presented with a commemorative box containing a freshly baked cake. It is a classy touch. Five years ago, the Sultan inserted a clause into the constitution proclaiming that he “can do no wrong in either his personal or any official capacity”. Contentious enough, but on purely culinary grounds, I’m with him.
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