Sago is a starchy substance processed from the pith of certain species of palm. The trees are harvested for sago just before they flower when they are around 15 years old (if allowed to flower, the central pith dries up so the plant can produce seeds and it’s then useless for sago). The pith is crushed and worked to release its starch; a series of washings in water extract the starch from the plant fibres and, once collected in the water, the starch particles are left to settle and the water strained off. Sago is widely used in flour-form but also processed into small white balls, which is how we’re most familiar with it in the west. Tapioca, which is similar to sago, tends to be processed into larger balls and is sourced from the cassava plant.
1.Thai sago soup
Simmer 4 whole chicken thighs with 6 makrut lime leaves in 2 litres (500 ml) chicken stock until tender. Remove chicken, cool then shred the meat. Add 100 g sago, 80 ml fish sauce and salt and pepper to the stock and cook for 30 minutes or until sago is translucent. Add chicken, 3-4 chopped red chillies, some chopped coriander and 2 teaspoons of sugar. Serve with rice vinegar to season.
This light, textural dish is often served as a fasting meal in the Indian province of Maharashtra. It’s not hard to make, but you must use sago imported from India, which is processed differently to regular sago and comes in slightly larger, and whiter, “pearls”. Don't cook the sago over too high a heat or it will turn gummy in the pan, and make sure it is perfectly dry before you cook it.
3. Indian sago fritters (sabudana vadai)
Soak ½ cup sago for 20 minutes then drain. Mix with ½ cup rice flour, ⅓ cup fresh or frozen grated coconut, 2 large chopped green chillies and ⅓ cup Greek yoghurt. Season well. Form slightly heaped tablespoonfuls into balls then flatten into discs about 7 cm across. Deep-fry at 170°C for 4 minutes or until golden and cooked through.
This Thai street snack isn't so hard to make once you have the knack of forming the sago “dough” into a thin disc then wrapping it around the mince filling. These mightn’t have the same ultra-thin exterior as they do in Thailand but no matter, they are still utterly delicious!
5. Honeydew-sago pudding
Cook 1 cup sago in 7 cups water for 20 minutes or until translucent. Pour mixture into a large sieve over a sink and drain for 20 minutes. Heat ½ cup sugar (110 g) in ½ cup water (125 ml) to dissolve sugar. Stir into the sago in a bowl with 2 cups honeydew melon purée and 300 ml coconut milk. Decorate with melon balls and serve warm or cold.
6. Sago jellies (keuh sago)
Soak 300 g sago for 1 hour then drain well. Combine with 150 g caster sugar, 1 tbsp cornflour, ½ tsp salt and 2 ½ tbsp rose syrup in a bowl. Steam, covered, in a bowl for 30 minutes or until thick and translucent. When cool enough to handle, cut off small pieces and roll in fresh (or frozen then thawed) grated coconut.
7. Lemon-lime sago
Combine 3 cups water, the finely grated zest of 2 limes and 1 lemon, ¼ cup (60 ml) each lemon juice, lime juice and honey and ¾ cup (165 g) sugar in a saucepan. Bring to the boil, add ½ cup sago then simmer, stirring often, for 30 minutes or until thick and translucent. Cool and serve with whipped cream.
These simple-to-make cakes are popular in Indonesia, especially during Ramadan as part of a fast-breaking spread. Cantik means “pretty” in Bahasa and manis means “sweet”, although they are not so sweet as the name might suggest. Their prettiness comes from the deployment of pink and green dyed sago pearls, which you can easily find an Asian grocer.
9. Warm tofu with palm sugar syrup and sago
Cook ⅓ cup sago in simmering water until translucent then drain and rinse well. Combine ⅔ cup firmly packed brown sugar, 1 tbsp finely julienned ginger and ⅔ cup (180 ml) water in a saucepan and bring to a simmer, stirring to dissolve sugar. Meanwhile, steam 500 g soft tofu over boiling water until heated through then divide among bowls. Spoon over some of the sago and top with warm syrup.
From the English repertoire of steamed fruit puddings comes this classic that uses sago as a surprising, key ingredient. No doubt thrift and ease were behind its invention – this pudding is way more economical and a whole pile simpler to make than traditional plum pudding. Dried cherries give a glamorous edge but you can use raisins (or sultanas) instead. Despite the long soaking time and extended steaming, this is very quick and easy to put together.
Photography, styling and food preparation by china squirrel.