UFO (tarts) lands in Kuala Lumpur

UFO tarts is unique to Sandakan where a butter cake base is topped with meringue and custard. — Pictures by Choo Choy May
UFO tarts is unique to Sandakan where a butter cake base is topped with meringue and custard. — Pictures by Choo Choy May

KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 15 — If you hail from Sabah, you know what the hype’s all about when it comes to UFO tarts. 

Shaped like an imaginary flying saucer from another world, it is believed to have originated in Sandakan back in 1955 when Hainanese baker Fu Ah Oh accidentally burnt some tarts. 

A cult favourite of Sabahans who also call it Ngau Si Dui or “piles of cow dung”, the tarts are actually a fluffy sponge cake topped with a swirl of meringue and custard. 

And since this January, the UFO tarts are now available in Kuala Lumpur... sold at Charlie’s Cafe in Taman Bukit Desa.

Debra Leong with her version of UFO tarts.
Debra Leong with her version of UFO tarts.

Open since May 2015, the cafe is owned and run by Sabahans Desonny Tuzan (or Sonny, as he is popularly known), 43, and his wife, Debra Leong, 37. 

Sonny who used to be in the food service industry started the cafe on a a social enterprise platform to help feed those in need with its “pay it forward” initiative. 

If you are wondering who Charlie, the cafe’s namesake, is... well, there is no Charlie.

Sonny chose the name because it is a familiar one like the television series Charlie’s Angels or even the actor, Charlie Chaplin. 

The cafe serves Malaysian food like nasi lemak, Sarawak laksa, chicken chop and durian soft serve ice cream.
The cafe serves Malaysian food like nasi lemak, Sarawak laksa, chicken chop and durian soft serve ice cream.

The cafe’s menu focuses on what Sonny calls “safe favourites” that can never go wrong like nasi lemak, chicken chop, curry laksa and Sarawak laksa. 

There’s also a variety of baked goods made by Debra such as cheesecake, scones, butter cake and brownies.

Debra, who is from Penampang, picked up her baking skills from her aunt and her sister who makes wedding cakes for sale. 

“I have the heart for baking.”

Eat the UFO tarts the Sabahan way, in one gulp as demonstrated by Debra Leong and Desonny Tuzan.
Eat the UFO tarts the Sabahan way, in one gulp as demonstrated by Debra Leong and Desonny Tuzan.

Her first bakes were batang buruk, pineapple tarts and kuih makmur. Food has always played an important role in Debra’s family; her grandfather was Hainanese and used to work in a coffeeshop brewing coffee and preparing toast and kaya

Initially, most of Charlie’s clientele were Gen-X but slowly they are gaining ground with the millennials who appreciate their offerings and keep returning as diners.

As Sonny adds, “People miss this kind of non-hipster and not Instagram-able food.” 

Sonny had toyed with the idea of bringing UFO tarts to KL three years ago.

However, he only put the idea into action when singer Juwita Suwito suggested he served the tarts as they are a Sandakan icon.

The tarts made their debut in January during the launch of Warisan Sandakan; a series of videos produced by Song & Stories, an initiative by Juwita and author Gina Yap Lai Yoong to highlight the stories of Malaysians. 

For orders more than a dozen UFO tarts, it is best to order one day in advance.
For orders more than a dozen UFO tarts, it is best to order one day in advance.

Sonny remembers visiting the original coffeeshop that served the UFO tarts in the 1980s. Located in town and next to the old library, it was a popular haunt for everyone in Sandakan including Sonny’s father. What made it more memorable was the shop would pack the UFO tarts in recycled cigarette cartons. Once you spot that distinctive packaging, you knew it was these delectable treats waiting inside. 

Fu’s original version is now lost as he died before he taught his heirs how to make them, there are many versions of this cult dessert in Sandakan and even Kota Kinabalu. 

Even Debra’s version of the UFO tarts is slightly different. For instance, the bakeries in Sabah tend to use margarine to make the cake base but Sonny prefers to use butter even though it’s a pricier ingredient. They also use organic selenium eggs.

“In Kuala Lumpur, you have to give them quality items,” explains Sonny. 

The tricky part of making the UFO tarts is beating the meringue topping just before baking.
The tricky part of making the UFO tarts is beating the meringue topping just before baking.

With Debra’s version, the base is more like a toasted biscuit that gives it a better bite and taste sensation.

As Sonny adds, “We make it a bit more gourmet.”

The base is delicious on its own and some of their customers even dunk it in hot coffee. 

More often than not, Sonny cannot resist popping a few of the base pieces into his mouth. Debra tells us that the meringue is kerja banyak since it needs to be whipped up just before baking or else it melts. 

For those who found the tarts in Sandakan to be too sweet, you will be happy to know that Debra has dialled back the sweetness of the UFO tarts here. Usually eaten at room temperature, some people prefer eating the UFO tarts chilled as the meringue topping will develop a marshmallow-like texture when it’s cold. In the future, Sonny may even add a twist to these tarts by adding durian paste.

Once word got out on the availability of these iconic UFO tarts here, many Sabahans have been trickling into the cafe to get their fix. One of their fans is television personality Daphne Iking who shared her love for the treats on her Facebook page. 

Last Saturday, Sonny had an event to get people to try the tarts which saw a great response from Sabahans.

A few nights ago, a motorbike rider came and pleaded his case to request for 20 tarts for his boss.

Look for Charlie's Cafe in Taman Bukit Desa that is proud to be supporting Malaysian heritage food.
Look for Charlie's Cafe in Taman Bukit Desa that is proud to be supporting Malaysian heritage food.

On Valentine’s Day, Sonny discovered that the “boss” was actually the man’s girlfriend who is a Sabahan as they both enjoyed the tarts and even packed two tarts home. Another lady who used to live in Sandakan came all the way from Taman Permaisuri Cheras to buy the tarts. 

So how do you eat a UFO tart?

Sonny advises that you pop it whole into your mouth so you can enjoy the sensation of the different textures — the toasted base with the puffy meringue and creamy custard.

Heavenly!

Charlie’s Cafe
29, Jalan Bukit Desa 5
Taman Bukit Desa
Kuala Lumpur
Open: 10am to 9.30pm. Closed on Sundays.
Tel: 012-8160003

* The UFO tarts are RM3 per piece. Debra bakes two batches in a day (morning and afternoon).

**  For orders of more than a dozen tarts, you need to order them a day in advance. Sonny also advises that you call ahead to ensure the availability of the tarts.

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