The Tebaloi maker from Mukah

Shamsiah’s Tebaloi comes in five flavours.

The Tebaloi is cut into smaller pieces.

The rolled dough on the banana leaf is placed on the lower deck of the grill.

TEN minutes into the interview, my eyes became watery and I wondered whether Shamsiah Zaffarin would mind if we continued our conversation outside her traditional Tebaloi processing area.

But on second thought, that would be selfish of me, so I decided to continue the interview in the processing area since Shamsiah was halfway through her work.

No, I wasn’t crying, but give yourself a good 10 minutes and see whether you would be able to tolerate the heat of the burning wood – and trust me, you would be teary-eyed too.

For the petite Shamsiah, it’s all pretty routine.

“I have been making Tebaloi for such a long time that my eyes are already immune and my body fat literally burns off in the sauna-like heat,” joked the mother of three.

Shamsiah is a third generation maker of the traditional snack at Kampung Tutus Hilir, Mukah.

She is a bubbly host with so much to share – on one condition, “No photos of me. What matter most are pictures of my beloved Tebaloi.”

She has been making Tebaloi her whole life and knows the process like the back of her hand.

 

How it’s made

Tebaloi is becoming increasingly popular not only among locals but also foreign tourists. It’s a Melanau snack made of sago flour, eggs, desiccated coconut, sugar, turmeric, and other flavours.

Tebaloi is made by first mixing the dough comprising sago flour, desiccated coconut, eggs and sugar.

The dough is then placed on top of a large banana leaf and flattened with a rolling pin. Next, the banana leaf (with the flattened dough) is placed on top of hot ambers for about 20 minutes.

The banana leaf is used to ensure the original flavour and smell do not change after the drying process.

The dough is subsequently removed and cut into squares of four by four inches each before being put back onto the hot ambers. A heavy block is placed on top of the crackers to further flatten them.

The traditional method of making Tebaloi with a wooden stove is believed to produce a crispier product. The smoke from the wood creates a more ‘traditional feel’ to its flavour as well.

Shamsiah sells her Tebaloi all over Sarawak. Although she likes selling her products outside the state, costly transportation has put paid to it.

“Usually, buyers will come to my factory in Mukah to buy as much as they want and then sell at their shops. So far, business is good,” she said.

She pointed out that exporting to Peninsular Malaysia would be feasible without the prohibitive shipping charges.

“The high costs make me think twice. Let’s just say I’m sending 50 packets to the peninsula – the cost of postage alone is more than the price of the Tebaloi itself.”

 

Improved taste

Shamsiah said over time, the taste of Tebaloi has been improved by adding different flavours, of which the five main ones are original (banana leaf), turmeric, pandan, strawberry and Milo.

While she is sticking to the traditional way of making the snack, the modern way is now available with advances in technology.

She said she prefers the traditional way because she has been using it since her great-grandmother’s time, adding, “I also feel the traditional way should be preserved.”

On average, Shamsiah and her helpers produce around 800 to 1,000 packets per day, and the price of each increases according to the price of the ingredients.

“Previously, customers paid 80 sen per packet in bulk purchases. Then I increased it to RM1 – and now it’s RM1.20 if they buy directly from me. The price depends on the cost of the ingredients,” she added.

It’s safe to say Shamsiah is contributing to tourism in the state as visitors from overseas have visited her factory.

“A local travel agency will always bring foreign tourists around and they seem intrigued by the traditional way of making Tebaloi. This is a good way to promote tourism and the product,” she said.

After visiting her factory, foreign tourists will not only bring the Tebaloi home with them but also tell their fellow citizens about the unique way the traditional Sarawakian snack is made. Tourism in the state will benefit from the exposure.

Before moving to the current factory, Shamsiah and her family operated from home.

The factory, which has been in use since 1990, needs improvement. Shamsiah pays rent of RM10 per day to use it.

She is hopeful that one day the factory will be upgraded into a tourist attraction in Mukah.

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