Finding tahai in Lawas
By Patricia Hului
‘Dadah’ (drugs in Malay) are bad for you…unless it comes in the form of a local delicacy.
At the northernmost part of Sarawak, the town of Lawas is home to a fish dish called ‘dadah’ soup.
This local soup is made of tamarind, onions, coconut milk, sometimes with salted fish together with the key ingredient, tahai (smoked tamban fish).
According to local resident Bujang Batang, the soup is nutritious and sometimes used to cure mild sickness such as flu and fever.
Beaming with pride, he said: “Here in Lawas, we are the sole producer of tahai. All the tahai you see being sold in Limbang, Brunei and even in Sabah are all from this town.”
Besides ‘dadah’, there are many other ways to eat tahai.
“You can have it blended and mixed with your sambal or serunding and eat it with kelupis,” Bujang shared.
Hailing from Kampung Sundar, Bujang believed a visit to Lawas was meaningless without a trip to a tahai smokehouse.
Kampung Awat Awat located at the Batang Trusan estuary is the place to see tahai being processed.
One of the bigger processing smokehouses is run by Perusahaan Norazimah Produk Hasil Laut whose company head, Aminah Jamaludin is the fifth generation running the family business.
They produce two types of tahai; whole or dressed tahai, which means that the fish have been beheaded and scaled.
Aminah shared, “We start our work around four or five in the morning because that was when the fish arrive from the sea.”
Her workers, mostly women from the village, would first bleed and wash the fish before seasoning them with salt.
They then place the trays of fish on wire netting, smoking them for two days over slow-burning mangrove wood.
Aminah said, “We must use mangrove wood because it bring out the original taste of tahai. With other firewood, the taste would not be the same.”
She pointed out that April till July was the peak season for tamban fish while November and December are when the source is scarce.
“There are two sources of tamban fish coming in; one is from our local fishermen and another is from the Brunei fishermen.”
The local fishermen usually bring their catch out of Lawas water and sometimes off Kuala Penyu and Kudat waters in Sabah.
Aminah said the local tamban fish was smaller in size making it crunchier after being smoked.
“Most of our customers prefer the smaller ones, perhaps because they find them tastier.”
The sale of tahai escalated about five years ago thanks to the effort and funding of various government agencies especially Fisheries Development Authority of Malaysia (LKIM).
“I remember back then we were only producing less than one tonne in a month,” Aminah recalled.
Now, Aminah and her ten workers can produce up to two tonnes of dressed tahai and five tonnes of whole tahai in one month.
The way they make tahai is nothing like a commercial food-producing factory because the whole process is done more in a ‘gotong-royong’ style.
“Everybody pitches in their effort including our young children who sometimes help in the menial work such as discarding the fish heads.”
According to Aminah, the smokehouse will never stop smoking as long as there is boat coming in with a supply of tamban fish.
Besides making them, these women from Kampung Awat Awat are also promoting their tahai product by joining in entrepreneurial exhibitions throughout the country.
Scaled tahai can fetch up to RM40 per kilo while whole ones up to RM25 per kilo during off season.
Meanwhile, the waste produced from dressed tahai such as the discarded fish scales and heads are sold to local farmers for a few ringgit per kilos.
“Our Lun Bawang or Chinese friends who are rearing pigs would come and buy this tahai waste every now and then.”
Aminah shared that tahai can be kept for up to two months if refrigerated.
The humble smokehouses standing on wooden stilts over water could be replaced with concrete ones equipped with better facilities soon.
According to her, “The government has allocated a budget for us to have better buildings because this place is not just our factory but where visitors stop by to buy tahai.”
Last March, Malaysia Intellectual Property Organisation (MyIPO) listed tahai-based products as intellectual property under Geography Indicator (GI).
These products include tahai sauce and tahai satay.
Aminah said tahai can be considered traditional food for the Bruneian Malay community in Lawas as they have been eating it for many generations.
According to Kapitan Fong San Fong, the Chinese community in Lawas has also been enjoying the smoked fish for many generations for its chewy, tasty, slightly salty taste.
“We like them as snacks. We can just eat them like that without cooking or anything,” he said. “Plus, it really goes well with beer.”
Fong asserted that although Lawas was one of the smaller towns in Sarawak, it stood out as the sole producer of tahai.
To date, tahai and tahai-based products have been exported throughout the whole of Malaysia, Brunei and even Hong Kong making it an international product Sarawakians could be proud of.