By Lara Dunston
YOU’D be forgiven for thinking from the wall-to-wall palm trees you see in Sabah, that the region’s agricultural industry is all about palm oil. Yet just outside the city of Tawau, a delicious industry is flourishing – cocoa.
A 40-minute drive from the small city in the northeast of Malaysian Borneo, the Teck Guan Cocoa Museum charts the history of cocoa in the region and allows visitors to get a taste of it.
A guide meets us briefly in the shop-cum-museum before seating us in a small cinema to watch a film presentation on cocoa. It’s not the most riveting of movies, to be honest, but it’s brief and quickly sets the scene.
Cocoa trees weren’t planted in Malaysia until the mid-1950s and the volcanic soil and climate have proven to be very good for their cultivation. Today, this is no insignificant operation. There are 40,000 acres of plantation and the company sells cocoa to the biggest players in the global chocolate industry, such as Nestle, Mars and Cadbury, of which they’re particularly proud.
They were the first to start large scale grafting and pioneered zero-shield planting, which resulted in higher cocoa yields. Prior to this, cocoa plantations would traditionally grow shade trees next to the cocoa trees, mimicking how the tree naturally grew in the jungle, but research showed this wasn’t the most productive way of growing.
Cocoa has many other uses too, the little movie tells us, and our guide reaffirms very proudly when we meet her after the show. In addition to being used to make chocolate, cocoa butter is used for cosmetics while the cocoa shells are crushed and used for fertilizer. When we first arrived at the museum we were encouraged to head to the bathroom to wash our hands – the cocoa-scented soap it seems is made from cocoa butter.
Throughout the duration of the short film, the aroma of cocoa has had us salivating. Was this what Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory smelt like, I wonder to myself. The reason for the strong aroma is the cocoa processing factory located just behind the museum.
The factory, Majulah Koko Tawau, is one of two factories operated by the Teck Guan group, which has been processing its own cocoa since 1975, and after the film our guide escorts us up the stairs beside the cinema to take a look at the factory in operation from a viewing floor where the computers that run the factory are located.
While the cocoa beans are selected and picked by hand, the factory is a decidedly automated affair. Our guide points out the different machinery that the cocoa passes through, from the roaster and pin mill to the ‘liquid farm’ where the cocoa liquid is produced, to the liquor tank where it’s left overnight, before moving on to the ball mill and cocoa butter press, used to separate the material into cocoa butter and cocoa grind or powder.
Back down in the museum, there are plenty of posters pointing out the health benefits of cocoa consumption in all its forms, and just to make sure we got the message, our delightful guide runs through them for us.
Cocoa, for instance, is a rich source of flavonoids – plant pigments that are powerful antioxidants – and studies have shown that these can potentially help prevent cardiovascular disease and cancer. While flavonoids are abundant in many fruits and vegetables, cocoa is rich in a type of flavonoid called epicatechin, which is known for its antioxidant content.
Feeling suitably guilt-free, we’re eager to commence the final part of the visit, as our guide takes us to a tasting room and demonstration kitchen where the fun bit finally begins. Here we get to try the creations that a cook has been preparing since we first arrived, while a guide runs through the techniques used to prepare them.
We taste an Asian-inspired dish of chocolate dumplings in a sweet soup which tasted a lot more scrumptious than it sounds; quite possibly the best hot chocolate-style cocoa drink I’ve ever tried that had me wishing the temperature was ten degrees cooler so I could follow it up with another; cocoa popcorn with chocolate syrup, which I was wishing would’ve been served while we were watching that movie; chocolate ‘spring rolls’ (trust me, there’s no veggies involved, they’re just cylindrically-shaped); and handmade chocolates that are as delicious as any made by Nestle, Mars and Cadbury!
Note: the visit can also be combined with a tour of the plantation itself, called the Teck Guan Cocoa Village, a short drive away, but this needs to be arranged in advance. Email: mailto:email@example.com
If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website
Lara Dunston (UAE, Australia, UK)
Australian-born, Dubai-based travel writer Lara Dunston and her photographer husband Terence Carter have been living out of their suitcases since 2006, bouncing around the planet on assignment for publications from National Geographic Traveller in the USA to The Independent in the UK. The couple also have a popular travel blog Grantourismo, where they blog about slow and sustainable travel, local travel, and experiential travel.