Taking ‘tapai’ to international level

An enterprising couple have pooled their resources to create Naga Tapai – their version of Sabah’s traditional rice wine – for the local and overseas markets.

The striking label reads “Naga Tapai by Kennedy John (with the support of Keningau folks)”.

Naga Tapai means Dragon Tapai.

Kennedy, 42, is the only son of former PBS Deputy Speaker Datuk John Angian. Practically a husband and wife team, his task is sourcing for the Tapai, processing, quality control and bottling while his wife Alyssa Lim, 43, is in charge of designing, branding and marketing by virtue of her formal education in Graphic Design.

Basically, “Naga Tapai” is a social enterprise, a genuine attempt to help the rural populace in Keningau elevate their household income by producing good quality Tapai. “We will then buy their Tapai, bottle and market it.

Yes, our venture is considered a cottage industry for much of the production process is done from home,” said Kennedy.

Alyssa, a former air stewardess, chipped in to say that it takes a Kadazandusun to have “know how” to brew a good tapai, and to market the age-old taste that has been passed down for generations, potentially in a big way.

“I complement my husband’s Kadazan roots. He grew up witnessing the making of tapai by experts from the Keningau community. Our competitive edge over others is purely derived from our passion to help our community prosper but simultaneously sharing our rich culture, tapai in this context, which is deeply entrenched in Kadazandusun society.”

Kennedy mooted the idea of producing “Naga Tapai” after numerous visits to villages in his area, Bingkor (in Keningau) and socialising with the residents there.

“Part of my job as a community leader is to visit all the kampungs in Bingkor every now and then.

Of course, during those visits, there will be fellowship with the people and most of the time, they will serve Tapai to their guests.

“And after countless Tapai drinking sessions with my wife Alyssa, Tapai should be shared with the rest of the world, not just during Pesta Kaamatan but any other day,” he said.

He also drew inspiration from overseas trips where there are bars or bistros serving their home brew.

“Why can’t Tapai be the same? We need to promote Tapai as another alcoholic beverage that you can enjoy anywhere and anytime.”

Why name it “Naga Tapai”? Kennedy cited a familiar folklore, saying a ferocious dragon once roamed atop Mount Kinabalu (Southeast Asia’s majestic peak) guarding a huge pearl (treasure). He said the mountain is also much revered as a sacred place for the Kadazandusun people.

“Apart from that, the Dragon (Naga) is the highest-ranking animal in the hierarchy of the Chinese animal kingdom. It also represents the emperor, the prosperity and power of the nation.

Hence, Naga Tapai is the illustration of a premium (symbolised by the dragon) treasure (tapai), and that is dragon tapai, which we would like to share with the outside world,” he explained.

The couple has so far invested around RM30,000 for research and development (R&D), branding and marketing.

Asked on the production capacity, Kennedy said matured Tapai is procured from villages in Keningau such as Kg Pagansangan, Kg Kuangoh, Kg Bingkor Lama, Kg Liau Darat and Kg Apin-Apin. “Presently, we can produce up to 500 bottles (230ml) of Naga Tapai and 50 Siopon (in a jar/tajau 750ml) per month.

Depending on demand and if the demand is good, we can even replicate the same production in another village and thus double the capacity.”

“So far for Siopon (in jar), we deal direct with consumers with a minimum of two siopon.”

The “usuk”, a bamboo straw traditionally used to drink tapai from the tajau, comes along with the tajau.

Negotiations are underway with hotels and resorts, especially in the State capital to help promote “Naga Tapai” to their guests and patrons. “We hope that in the near future, Naga Tapai will become a ‘must bring home’ souvenir for domestic and foreign tourists.”

Apart from catering to the local market, Kennedy and his wife are looking for partners or distributors not just for the Malaysian market but also abroad. A good sign was that during the Kaamatan month of May, “Souled Out” in Kuala Lumpur actually ordered 80 bottles of Naga Tapai as a mixture for their “Mojito”.

Maturity of the tapai is measured by months. “Tapai is best consumed after being kept one and a half to two months from the date of production. Going by this practice, we will not buy or get Tapai that is less than one and a half months old.”

On how he carries out quality control, Kennedy noted that people tend to have a different preference on the taste of Tapai as some will like it sweet while others may want it to be slightly bitter.

“But as far as we are concerned, good quality Tapai must have a bitter sweet and sour taste.

That is what we consider a quality Tapai and it’s only through years of experience you can determine whether the Tapai is good or otherwise,” he shared.

According to Kennedy, sasad (yeast) is also one of the factors in ensuring the desired quality of Tapai.

“In this respect, we are considering the need to distribute our own sasad so that we could have more families involved in the chain process.”

Come September, we will be working with UMS students to conduct more research and development (R&D) work.

“We are looking forward excitedly to this collaboration.”

Admittedly, their participation in the recent Trade Expo in China was a great exposure to the couple.

They met a few companies which are interested to market Naga Tapai in China but nothing is concrete at the moment. “We gave them some samples as they need to send these items for testing. In fact, this is one of the few requirements we must adhere to. However, in terms of packaging, we believe we are ready,” said Kennedy.

Visitors who came to their booth at the expo were reportedly mesmerised with the product packaging design and uniqueness of the tajau (siopon), especially the way it is presented to consumers.

Pressed for an answer, Kennedy said China is looking at a big volume, perhaps by the container.

“As such, we must get our people ready for this demand. For now, no deal has been closed yet with any potential overseas buyer.” – Mary Chin

Source: Daily Express