• Sometimes sago can be confused with tapioca. (Water Heart Food)Source: Water Heart Food
From a staple carbohydrate in Papua New Guinea to a hero in Thai desserts.
Seraphina Seow

26 Nov 2020 - 1:30 PM  UPDATED 26 Nov 2020 - 10:00 AM

In Australia, we most commonly know sago as a pearl-shaped starch.

The owner of Mango Coco Thai Dessert Cafe in Sydney who goes by the name of On, tells SBS Food, "Sago provides a soft chewy texture to the dessert that you cannot get from another ingredient." This is why the tiny clear orbs often feature in Thai desserts.

On says if you go to a drink or dessert stall in Thailand, chances are you can request a sago topping.

"Sago provides a soft chewy texture to the dessert that you cannot get from another ingredient." 

It's used in many Thai traditional desserts. But according to Saruttaya 'Na' Lakchai, a Thai chef and owner of Chef Na's Plant Based Kitchen in Melbourne, the most popular way to eat it is with sweet corn, sweet black beans and coconut cream.

We asked On and Na to share more about this plant-based ingredient.

1. Sago comes from a palm plant

Sago is extracted from the starchy centre, or pith, of the sago palm trunk. Na says metroxylon sagu is the species of sago palm that's most popular in Thailand, particularly in the country's south, and it grows in swamps and wetlands.

The palm thrives in humid, warm climates, which explains its spread through countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia and the Pacific Islands.

2. From trunk to starchy flour

One sago palm can produce between 100 and 300 kilograms of dried starch, and to extract starch from the sago palm trunk, Na says it takes much more than hard, manual labour.

"They peel the bark around the trunk then break it up just like you would squeeze a coconut, they grind it first then squeeze it, let the starch settle, then strain out the water."

The sago starch is then dried under the sun, and you're left with fresh sago flour.

3. An Indigenous staple in the tropics

In parts of Indonesia and in Papua New Guinea, several Indigenous communities rely on sago as their main source of carbohydrate.

A popular way to prepare it in Papua province, Indonesia, involves stirring hot water into the starch to create a gooey consistency, which is called papeda, while in Papua New Guinea, sago dumplings are common. 

4. From starchy flour to little pearls

Without needing to add any gelatin, wet sago flour can be converted into the familiar pearls we see in Thai desserts and drinks.

Traditionally, sago paste would be pressed through a sieve, or rubbed until grains form. Na says these handmade pearls are often not uniform in size, unlike pearls today which are predominantly factory made in Thailand.

5. Pearls aren't always made from sago

According to Na, people in certain areas of Southern Thailand – areas that grow sago palm – mostly eat pearls made from sago flour. But across the rest of Thailand, and even here in Australia, pearls are more likely made from tapioca flour.

We may be inclined to lump sago and tapioca together, but tapioca is derived from the starchy roots of cassava. This means should we endeavour to try real sago someday it'll likely involve a bit of travel.

Coconut tapioca cream, lime curd and guava

This elegant make-ahead dessert is an explosion of tropical flavours, with fragrant guava sorbet and sliced fresh guava, zesty lime curd and tapioca-flecked coconut cream. 

6. Soaking sago pearls is contested

While some vehemently protest against it, Na says she always soaks her pearls. She does this by adding one part pearls to one part room temperature water for around 10 to 15 minutes.

"When people place the sago directly into the hot water, the sago comes out still having a white dot in the middle, it's not cooked, and is dry and hard in the middle," she says. 

7. A popular Thai snack

In Thailand, a snack called called saku sai moo is made by soaking sago pearls in room temperature water for approximately 30 minutes before using the mixture to cover a ball of cooked pork mixture. The pork and sago dumplings are then steamed, which cooks the sago into a sticky casing.

Na recalls saku sai moo as a common fixture at Thai street stalls, and some dining establishments serve it as an appetiser.

Thai pork and sago dumplings (saku sai moo)

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!

8. You can fry sago

On explains you can fry sago pearls as well. After boiling the pearls, mash them into flat discs and spread them on a baking tray in the oven.

Dry them slowly using heat from the oven. "You want it to become dry like a chip that hasn't been fried yet," explains On.

Finally, deep fry them until the texture resembles that of corn chips. On likes to add sago chips to desserts.

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10 ways with sago
You may be surprised to learn there are many delicious shapes sago can take, and not all of them sweet, either. So keep stocking that pantry staple and try it out on some of these great recipes.
Yeung chi ka m lo (Sago with coconut, mango and pomelo)

Served chilled, its popularity lies in just the right balance of flavours and textures – the soft, sweet mango, light coconut cream, chewy sago pearls and slightly bitter pomelo popping in the mouth.

Jasmine tea sago with rhubarb

Sago pudding is a very traditional dessert and you need to ensure the sago pearls are cooked properly so that they're lovely, bouncy and translucent. Here they're infused in jasmine tea and combined with stewed rhubarb. The Chefs' Line

Tapioca noodle and vegetable salad with coconut milk (banh tam bi)

This is based on a Saigon street dish called banh tam bi, a fabulous mix of thick, chewy rice and tapioca noodles, crunchy vegetables and peanuts, aromatic fresh herbs and fine shreds of pork and/or pork skin. The whole thing is served drenched in slightly sweet nuoc cham and warmed, thick coconut milk and it is beyond delicious. Here’s a vegetarian approximation that’s easy-peasy; there’s actually no cooking, as such. 

Chai-spiced tapioca pudding

The spice blend of chai (cinnamon, ginger, cloves and cardamom) in this rich and addictive tapioca custard will transport you to India with every mouthful. These puddings make the perfect finish to a curry feast.

Tapioca pudding with cassava and banana (che chuoi chung)

This Vietnamese dessert is made from the hardy root vegetable cassava. Tapioca is a starch extracted from the tuber and is available from Asian food shops.