Sunday, October 03, 2010

Sarawak Cuisine - 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.

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.

Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Sarawak Cuisine - Good old sago

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