Glutton On The Go

Published: Saturday August 16, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday August 16, 2014 MYT 9:20:19 PM

Tawau’s treasures

After eating his way across Sabah, this glutton arrives in Tawau — and continues eating.

Tawau is famous for its scrumptious seafood, but how about cocoa plantations? And fried bananas with cheese?

After the wild roads and meats of Sabah’s deep interior (Food hunting across Sabah, July 5, 2014,, I am glad to arrive at “civilisation” on the southern coast of Sabah.

Pat Lingham, our Sabahan guide from Equator Travel, said we had to try Tawau’s pisang goreng cheese, deep-fried bananas with shredded cheese (and gula Melaka) sprinkled on top.

We tried some at a place called Tawau Kopitiam, near the old mosque. The decor here was an amazing mish-mash of bric-a-brac but the bananas were not quite up to par. We then asked the locals about the best eatery for this snack and many mentioned a place called Indo Café.

However, asking for directions in Tawau can be a tricky matter, as we were given all kinds of vague (and often conflicting) instructions as to how to get there. After several rounds about the Fajar area of town in the van, we finally found it tucked away in a quiet street.

The pisang cheese combined fried bananas with the tart, pungent creaminess of cheese. Those who want things even sweeter can go for the pisang coklet kacang which adds bits of chocolate and groundnuts into the deal. The latter is a good idea as the bananas I tasted here were not of the sweet melt-in-the-mouth variety, but more of the bland, starchy type.

For the sake of novelty, you have to try the pisang peppek – bananas which are hammered and flattened (like ayam penyet) and then served with a type of sambal-belacan dip.

The taste takes some mental adjustment as I have long associated bananas with dessert, and not something savoury. It’s the same kind of mental shift required when eating tau foo fah in China – which is served not with sugar but with soy sauce and chilli!

'Pisang Peppek' are bananas which are hammered and flattened and served with a sambal-belacan dip.
‘Pisang Peppek’ are hammered and flattened bananas with sambal belacan dip. 
Fried bananas with cheese at Indo Cafe, Tawau.
Fried bananas with cheese at Indo Cafe, Tawau. 
Excellent 'sar pak' clams cooked in a spring 	onion soup.
Excellent 'sar pak' clams cooked in a spring onion soup.

Cocoa country

Cocoa originates from the Aztec Empire of Mexico, is planted mostly in West Africa, and made famous by Belgium. But Tawau keeps Malaysia’s flag flying for this crop.

One place to get to know this story better is the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum near town. Here, you can also find an amazing range of products, such as liquid cocoa hand wash soap – which left my hands feeling silky long after using it.

A poster in the museum informs visitors that the Kuna Indians of a Caribbean island have less heart diseases because they drink five cups of cocoa per person.

However, checking up on the web reveals that this only applies to their kind of bitter-tasting, unprocessed cocoa powder which has high flavanol levels. Most cocoa undergoes “Dutch-processing” with alkali which destroys the active flavanol content by as much as 80%. (

The Teck Guan group began planting cocoa trees on the fertile volcanic soils around Tawau back in 1957, and established a processing factory in 1976. Cocoa had traditionally been planted under other trees, but the company pioneered “zero shade cocoa planting” and succeeded in increasing yields.

Over the years, they have established themselves in the industry, and supply cocoa powder to make M&M’s and Nestle’s Ovaltine. It’s a pity that their own brand (called Hoko) is not better known, because I personally like the strong chocolatey taste of their version of Milo.

The factory here shows how cocoa seeds are processed to extract the fragrant goodness that we all enjoy in chocolate.

When it comes to product tastings, well, you have to start at the beginning – raw cocoa seeds. The verdict? Actually, they are sourish and refreshing, a bit like soursop!

The museum also offers some novelty dishes, such as chocolate pop corn and crispy fried popiah skins dipped in 3-in-1 cocoa powder. Or how about tang yuan (glutinous rice balls) made with, and dipped in, the same powder?

(Prior bookings are required to visit the museum, call 089-779955 ext. 2626.)

At the Tawau market, you can have a great view of the sea while having a good, yet cheap, cup of coffee.
At the Tawau market, you can have a great view of the sea while having a good, yet cheap, cup of coffee. 
Tawau is famous for its good and cheap salted fish.
Tawau is famous for its good and cheap salted fish. 
Expensive coral fish being advertised at the Sabindo seafood shops in Tawau. But were they caught using bombs or cyanide?
Expensive coral fish being advertised at the Sabindo seafood shops in Tawau. But were they caught using bombs or cyanide?

Sustainable seafood

Tawau is well-known for its seafood, thanks to its strategic position next to the rich Celebes Sea (Laut Sulawesi).

Tourists love to return from here hauling boxes of premium frozen fish (such as sou mei or Napoleon wrasse and Mickey Mouse grouper or lou shee pan).

These valuable fish often dwell amidst the nooks and crannies of coral reefs, where normal nets can’t get to them. But as a scuba diver, I have heard numerous complaints about how they are caught by bombing reefs or squirting cyanide into them. This obviously destroys or poisons precious coral reefs (and thus future fish breeding grounds) for short-term gain.

And would you want to eat fish that has come into contact with, ahem, cyanide?

It’s an irony that the cheaper fish are the “safer” ones as they are caught with “normal” methods whereas the expensive fish are so valuable that some people would go to any lengths to snare them.

I have also heard similar tales from organic farmers. Cheap vegetables like kangkung grow almost wild like weeds and don’t need pesticides to maintain them, whereas expensive vegetables like kailan justify the use of costly chemicals to “protect” them.

Until the authorities enforce safer plus more eco-friendly and sustainable harvesting methods for these fish, I prefer to stay away from them.

For a fresh seafood meal, most visitors head to the Sabindo area of town which has a long stretch of seafood eateries (no pork is served here) where bubbling tanks are brimming with live crabs, fish, shellfish and shrimps.

For dinner, we tried the Kam Ling restaurant, which had a large display of an old article in The Star about it.

We ordered some exotic-looking clams (known in Cantonese as sar pak), an “ordinary” red grouper and baby kailan.

The clams had no hint of pungency and were bright and supple, its taste enhanced by the ginger and spring onion soup while the kailan was crunchy, almost half-raw, which I felt was fantastic.

As for the grouper, to my surprise, even though this was one of the “cheaper” fish, it was super-fresh, springy and succulent, a real joie de vivre seafood experience.

However, it also made me wonder why groupers in West Malaysia often did not taste so fresh. Was it because, as an organic shop owner once told me, most fish are laced with formalin to keep them “fresh”?

The next day, we visited the Tawau market. The other travel writers on the trip were raving about how good and cheap the ikan masin (dried fish) and ikan bilis here were, so fret not if you don’t lay your hands on boxes of frozen fish – it’s still possible to find some guilt-free shopping “victories” here!

After you’ve loaded up on your salted fish, head up to a unique kopitiam on the top floor.

There are not many places in Malaysia where you can have an ocean view at a wet market while having a good, yet cheap, cup of coffee. This must be one of Tawau’s best kept secrets.

Tags / Keywords: Sabah, seafood, cocoa, Tawau

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