The local tourism sector has borne the brunt of the global COVID-19 outbreak.
With travel bans and national lockdowns putting the brakes on all inbound travellers into the sultanate, many tourism operators are at a loss, buckling at the inability to conduct business as usual during this time of crisis.
For one operator, however, the pandemic provided an unexpected opportunity to take its specialty, culinary tourism, to the next level; by preparing ethnic fusion cuisine made with ingredients from small farming communities and delivering them right to your doorstep.
This is Eco Ponies Garden’s (Eco Ponies) new project, the Bidasari Hideout Kitchen.
The initiative intended to not only offset the economic impact of the coronavirus but to also ensure the survivability and sustainability of small farmers and producers within the rural community.
Eco Ponies is an offbeat farm-stay located on a two-acre corner of Kampung Bang Nukat in Lamunin, Tutong, whose approach towards ecotourism and hospitality has always been gastronomic and people-centric.
“This project (the Bidasari Hideout Kitchen) had always been in the pipeline for us but was put on hold for quite a number of months,” explained Eyon Ukoi, the founder of Eco Ponies.
“But when cases of COVID-19 started to emerge in Brunei, and social distancing measures became mandatory, we realised how our farm-to-table model would be severely impacted,” she added in an interview with The Bruneian.
With the suspension of dine-in services and the banning of foreign in-bound travellers in late March, Eyon believed that the situation in the sultanate warranted a change in how the garden operated; from farm-to-table to a farm-to-kitchen concept.
According to Eyon, the Bidasari Hideout Kitchen provides an ingredient-and-recipe meal kit service – similar to the American Blue Apron – where customers are provided farm-fresh ingredients, a recipe and a set of instructions which they can follow by hand in their own kitchen.
Though only less than a month old, the service has racked up a great demand, sometimes reaching about $100 to $150 worth of orders per day, a surprising reality for the Eco Ponies team.
Marketed completely through social media platforms such as Instagram and Whatsapp, Eyon said that a significant chunk of the demand comes from expatriates living in Brunei, due to the novelty of the dishes.
However, she noted how more and more young people are starting to order from the Bidasari Hideout Kitchen, an unexpected demographic for the kind of food they are serving up.
With dishes like nasi lemak roselle with grilled lamb or chicken, vegan ripe papaya salad, stir-fried bracken fern or locally known as pakis and drinks like the young coconut juice infused with roselle, the gastronomic line up is meant to create a unique culinary experience less known to the regular urbanite.
“A hundred percent of our ingredients are sourced from either our own farm or from farmers who are currently unable to sell their produce at the Tamu Tutong Complex due to the outbreak,” she went on to explain.
“It felt like a good opportunity to launch the project, and this new concept felt very much in line with what Eco Ponies has always set out to do – through using a different market channel – to venture out into the culinary world using resources from community farmers,” she continued.
Eyon commended the government’s efforts in providing assistance to the nation’s market vendors that are heavily affected by the country’s social distancing measures through various e-commerce platforms.
However, for some vendors, especially the elderly and those living in rural areas, these new mechanisms may prove to be too difficult for them to grasp, which has prevented them from benefitting from the digitisation trend that is sweeping the nation.
“An important aspect of Eco Ponies, from the get-go, has been and will always be community outreach, and we choose to do that through food to highlight the important role that communities that subsist through farming and foraging play in society,” she added.
Even to this day, members of the community would come by the garden as early as dawn, sometimes to drop off goods that were ordered for the Bidasari Hideout Kitchen.
Other times to introduce unfamiliar produce that grows naturally on our Bruneian soil.
Like the velvet apple or weevil-wort known locally as buah mentega and buah lemba respectively, which are unknown to a large swath of the Bruneian community.
For Eyon however, they hold value, not only as a novel ingredient but also for the aspect of culture that they hold.
“We try to make sure that there is a story interlaced with each dish, with each ingredient representing a different member of the community and a different way of life,” she said.
The weevil-wort, for example, is a wild plant frequently harvested by the Kedayan community back in the day, for its leaves were used to wrap kelupis (glutinous rice rolls).
The fruits are said to be sweet and nectar-like, which for Eyon means having the potential to be made into drinks or desserts.
“We’d like to share these stories to more people, because the more attention that is given to the men and women that grow our food, the stronger our food security becomes and the better their lives will be.
“Because awareness creates demand and demand generates opportunity,” she went on to say.
For those interested, they can learn more through the Eco Ponies Instagram account at @eco_poniesgarden.
The Bruneian | BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN