Everything you meant to ask about sago

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Whether used for making foodstuff,ustensils, textiles or roofing, sago certainly lives up to its nickname of the ‘tree of a thousand uses’, writes LIZ PRICE out of Kuala Lumpur

WHEN I was a child, a typical dessert dish in an English household was sago pudding. It was simply sago cooked with milk and sugar, and eaten with a dollop of jam on top. I used to nickname it frogspawn due to its texture. It resembled tapioca pudding which had a smoother texture, but is from cassava. In Malaysia sago dishes are commonly eaten with gula melaka. However, other societies use sago as a staple food item instead of rice or potato.

Sago forms a major staple food for the lowland peoples of New Guinea and Maluku (The Moluccas). The sago plant has dozens of uses, so when I was in Maluku I was able to see this for myself.

The islands of Maluku in Indonesia were originally known at The Spice Islands and even today many spices are still grown. Although not a spice, sago is an important commodity in Maluku.

Sago is a powdery starch made from the processed pith found inside the trunks of the sago palms . These palms grow alongside rivers and in freshwater swamps. The sago palms grow all over Southeast Asia, and are used as staple foods in places where there is insufficient rain to grow wet rice.

During my stay on Seram island, I was able to see the process of sago preparation right on the riverbanks. The tall palm trees grow at a rate of up to 1.5m of vertical stem growth per year. The palm builds up a store of starch during its life of about 15 years and attains the maximum amount of starch just before the inflorescence opens. Then the tree will die after flowering.

When the palm is judged to be mature, men will cut it down and divide the stem into several lengths. Each piece is split in half lengthways, and used as a container into which the pith containing the dry starch is put. Buckets of water are hoisted from the river and added to the pith, then the mixture is pounded and washed in order to free the flour from the fibres. Pieces of sago bark are used as a filter although nowadays they also use manmade materials.

When the slurry is ready, it is allowed to flow down a sloping ramp into a goti or container made from another length of the palm trunk. This wet sediment will form the sago flour. Round shaped baskets are made from sago leaves, held together by string made from sago fibres. The wet sago is put into these baskets and transported from the river. The purified starch is then dried and preserved as flour.

Just two men work on one palm tree, one pounds and one washes. It takes about seven days to extract the flour from one palm. One tree can produce 400-600kg of wet sago flour, which is is 80 per cent starch, 16 per cent water and four per cent nitrogen.

The waste fibres left over from the washing process were dumped on the ground forming a soggy carpet which squelched between my toes. However, these fibres are still rich in protein and can be fed to pigs and chickens, and can also be used to make string.

The prepared sago flour can be preserved in the form of baked biscuits. During my stay in Maluku, I saw various different types of biscuit. Some tasted OK whereas others resembled chewing a small wad of compacted sawdust! The "toasted bricks" in the market caught my eye but I never tried them. They looked like hollow, extremely thick slices of bread. No doubt they are meant to be eaten with a sauce. The slices of toast made from sago were just about edible on their own. Sago flour is nearly pure carbohydrate and has very little protein, vitamins, or minerals.

Papeda is the sago pudding which totally resembles thick glue and is eaten with fish sauce. It reminded me of glue we used to make as children for sticking papers in scrapbooks! Sago starch is used in making bread and noodles. Pearl sago is the same starch mixed again into a paste and sieved through mesh of various sizes. The finished sago pearls have a long shelf life.

Sago is also used in the textile and pharmaceutical industries, especially as a thickener. For textiles it is used to treat fibres to make them easier to machine.

The sago palm is like the coconut palm, where nothing is wasted. Traditional Maluku houses are 90 per cent made from sago palms. The roof is made from the leaves which resemble attap, but is more durable than nipa commonly used in Malaysia. The walls are made from the fronds.

The palm parts can even be useful inside the house, as the midribs are used for making brooms and baskets. The barks of the petiole are stripped and woven into mats.

So sago certainly lives up to its nickname of the "the tree of a thousand uses".

The Brunei Times