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Sunday October 3, 2010

Good old sago

Food for both the rich and poor, sago is a starch that has many uses.

IF there is any food that can transcend social status, it is sago. As a staple food or gourmet dessert, it can be enjoyed by both pauper and prince.

Served in many South-East Asian homes, it is in Malaysia particularly important among the Melanau and Penan in Sarawak. The Penan used to roam the jungles of Borneo to search for their naok (wild sago) and the Melanau considered it (the Metroxylon sagu variety) a staple food, a source of wealth, and a life-saver during “dry days” or in times of strife.

Through the years: A Melanau woman making sago pearls using the traditional method at a typical sago baking house called belanga in Mukah.

The older generations of Melanau say that sago saved them from starvation in World War II. They also say it was the sago trade that made the Brookes decide to acquire Mukah from the Brunei Sultanate in 1860. Thus, for the Melanau and the Penan, sago is fondly dubbed the “Tree of Life”.

Nowadays, many foreign tourists who know about sago and its many uses – as food as well as industrial ingredients and high-end products in the pharmaceutical industry – make it a point to visit Mukah (a coastal town about three-and-a-half hours by road from Sibu), where there is a thriving sago industry. They come just to see what the sago tree looks like, how sago is processed and also to sample sago dishes at source.

Sago, which is widely available in the form of pearls, is used in desserts such as the popular sago with gula apung or gula melaka and coconut milk or evaporated milk and sago pudding. In India, where sago pearl is known by various regional names, it is used in a variety of dishes such as desserts boiled with sweetened milk that are used on certain religious occasions. In Ayurvedic medicine, it is believed that sago porridge is an effective and simple food to “cool and balance one’s body heat” while one is on strong medication or antibiotics.

Sago starch is used commercially in the making of noodles and white bread and also as a key material in various industries including paper, plywood and textile. It is used in the production of adhesives, paper, ethanol, high fructose glucose syrup, maltodextrin, cyclodextrin and monosodium glutamate.

Being a Melanau myself, I have been brought up to have a passion for sago as food. I still remember my late aunt, Francisca Laga, telling me that the moment Melanau children are able to eat, the first food they must taste is baked sago or starchy (boiled) linut.

Traditional method of cleaning wet sago flour. This is usually for home consumption in villages in Mukah.

The feeding rite is accompanied with a chant that went something like this: “This is the food of life; this is your root; you must give reverence and respect to this food and no matter where you are and what happens to you, you will always remember that you are a ‘sago child’. Come back to your roots.’’

As for being a “sago child”, I am not sure how true it is but I do appreciate sago and its contribution to our community. From the food served on our tables to the crafts we weave from the palm’s fronds, sago is so much a part of our lives and it has even become a tourist attraction to showcase the Melanau community. There is a tourist chalet in Mukah which has a roof woven from sago fronds and sago logs floating down the rivers there provide an interesting sight for visitors. Dubbed “floating money”, the sago logs are transported by river to the sago factory where they are processed into flour for export. Most of the village economy in Mukah Division depends on sago.

In Sarawak, most of the export quality sago palm is of Metroxylon variety. The palm, which can grow up to 30m tall, thrives well on peat soil and is found in many lowland areas. Sago is extracted from the pith of the stem. The palm is felled when it is between seven and 15 years old, and just before flowering, when the stem is richest in starch. One palm yields 150kg to 300kg of starch.

Sago starch is either baked (resulting in a product analogous to bread, pancake or biscuit) or mixed with boiling water to form a paste.

The Melanau has created sago dishes that have since become signature food of the state as well. These include baked sago pearls or sago pellets, sago biscuits known locally as tebaloi, sepit (love letters), dedenguk (sago pearls cooked with coconut milk, brown sugar and pandanus leaves for aroma), kuih bangkit or kuih cina, and linut.

Three traditional sago dishes which have gained popularity in Sarawak (clockwise from top) dedenguk, tumpi (very fine sago pearls baked with grated coconut and served with banana or eaten on its own) and baked sago pearls (Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak loves those produced in Medong, Dalat).

The linut has become popular during family and community gatherings and is eaten with sambal and ulam.

A similar dish is found in Sabah and Brunei, where it is known by its local name. In Brunei, it is called ambuyat.

Sago may look like most other starches but to the experts, sago flour has a higher starch and sucrose content and more consistency. “Compared with other four, sago flour has a different texture and more binding power,” says Elsie Wee, owner of Nibong restaurant in Mukah.

Nibong is among many popular eateries in Mukah that serve sago-based food. They also serve umai (sushi-like dish) as an appetiser accompanied by baked sago pearls.

Sago Pancake

(tetebeh in Melanau dialect)
(Usually served for breakfast or tea time)

Coconut (not too old)
Sago flour (wash and semi-dried)
Dried shrimps for garnishing

Grate the coconut finely. Pound the dried shrimp finely. Sieve the semi-dried sago flour. Mix all the ingredients (coconut, dried shrimp, a bit of salt and flour) together.

Heat a non-stick pan. Put in the ingredients and press until all fit in nicely and flat in the pan. Cover and cook until the edge is slightly brown and then turn over to cook the other side. Cooking time is 5 to 10 minutes depending on how thick you want the pancake to be.

It is best eaten while still warm.

Bubur Sagu

(Melanau version is known as dedenguk)

Sago Pearls
Coconut milk (thin)
Pandanus leaf
Brown sugar preferably gula apung
(Sweet potatoes – optional)

Boil sago pearls until only a tiny dot of white can be seen in the pearls.

Remove and drain under cold water to wash off the extra starch.

Put coconut milk in a pot and boil over low heat.

Add the sago pearls, brown sugar to taste, a bit salt and pandanus leaf for aroma.

Add sweet potatoes if preferred.

Cooking time about 15 to 20 minutes. It can be served hot or chilled.