A product of the sago palm tree, sago is familiar to most Filipinos in the form of sago pearls.
Scientific name: Metroxylon sagu.
It's a principal ingredient in sago’t gulaman (sweetened agar and sago coolers), taho (seen above, sweet silken tofu pudding) and ginataang bilo-bilo (glutinous rice balls, sago pearls and ripe jackfruit in coconut cream)
The lowdown: Sago palms are harvested for their starch. Trees are felled when starch reserves reach their peak (either prior to or immediately after flowering, but before the fruit forms). Cut into metre-long lengths, the palm’s thick outer bark is split to expose a white pith, which according to a U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) booklet published in 1989, is then “removed with a bamboo-edged wooden hoe.”
By the numbers: The pith from 7 five-metre high sago palm trees can yield the same amount of starch as one hectare of wheat
Production: From the FAO report above, the pith from sago palms are covered with water and pounded to release their starch, then filtered through mats made with the palm’s leaves repeatedly. “The residual pith is further pounded, washed and strained to complete the extraction,” it continues, “then the starch ‘milk’ is run into troughs and settled out. The moist starch may be sun-dried and stored as sago flour, or converted into ‘pearl’ sago…by pressing cakes of starch through a perforated iron sheet or coarse screen.” These starch pellets then drop into a hammock-shaped cloth, which spins around in large circular sweeps to shape the pellets into rough spheres. (Bet sago pearls were never so interesting!)
Skip forward 30 years to a 2010 report from the Philippine Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), where it states that “In the Philippines, no mechanized method has been developed for the extraction and processing of sago starch.” According to Macaraeg (1984), on sago palm extraction methods by the locals in Zamboanga, the pith is “positioned such that their flat sides are up; with the help of a heavy wooden mallet, a worker pounds on the spongy pulp of the pith inch by inch.” Can anyone confirm whether methods have improved since this DENR report was published? How much demand for sago palm starch and its oil is needed to improve these production methods?
Further reading (there are so many great ones!):
• A paper on “Industrial production, processing, and utilization of sago palm-derived products.” It’s a relatively technical read (and by no means something I read beginning to end!) but from Section 184.108.40.206, In food delicacies, I learned all the wonderful ways sago starch is used in cooking throughout Asia - in biscuits and cookies, formed into strands of noodles that are steamed and dried, in puddings, confectionary, dense rice and sago cakes, breads, and my personal favourite, kropek - savoury, crisp fish and shrimp crackers that are light-as-air and incredibly addictive (I recommend dipping into spiced cane vinegar no more than one second before popping into your maw).
• A visit to The Society of Sago Palm Studies online. No dissing allowed, their website may be made with early Dreamweaver but the International Symposium on Sago, now in its 24th year, is miles ahead of other institutions on research.
• The difference between sago pearls and tapioca pearls. In many (Filipino) recipes, sago and tapioca are used interchangeably, often with little discernible difference on texture and taste. In this short piece, New Zealand-based chef Peter Gordon provides a great overview on cooking with sago and tapioca, including a rough recipe for Thai-inspired crab fritters, rhubarb pearls with a steamed lemon pudding, and linguine with crayfish-bisque soaked pearls. Talk about a starchy expansion!