Sago refers to those colorful little edible balls we keep seeing in various tropical drinks. In the Philippines, sago pearls are often used to lend visual appeal and offer textural interest to such popular coolers and drinks as buko-sago-gulaman, dinoldog or tabirak.
I cook with sago quite often as they are low-cost additions which have big visual and textural impact in dishes. Coconut water sweetened with condensed milk and then mixed with gulaman cubes and sago pearls is a favorite summer thirst quencher here in my home. Rice porridge with coconut milk, various yams and sago pearls is a favorite dessert during cold rainy months. Recipes for these coming soon.
The natural colors of sago vary from off-white to brownish and grayish but they are often artificially-colored with green, red, pink and a host of other hues.Their soft, chewy and slimy texture, coupled with their attractive colors and globular shapes make them a favorite add-on to various drinks and desserts in the tropics.
Sago is made from the starchy pith of the stems of a number of tropical palms such as Metroxylon sagu and the sago cycad known as Cycas revoluta.
Metroxylon sagu or palm sago
Palm sago is the primary source of sago and can be found in Southeast Asia as well as Papua New Guinea, particularly in the lowland forests and freshwater swamps. The sago pearls we have in the Philippines come from this source.
Cycas revoluta or Cycad sago
Also called sago palm or king sago palm, the cycad sago is not a palm at all but a cycad. This other source of sago can be found in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is a less-common food item as many parts of the plant contain a dangerous neurotoxin. In fact, there has been an outbreak of Parkinson’s disease-like maladies in Guam following consumption of Cycad sago. Extended processing is needed to remove the toxins from the sago.
Two weeks ago or so, two people died after drinking the Ergocha brand of milk tea, and though the cause is yet unknown, it is suspected that the poisoning could be due to the presence of a powerful neurotoxin in the sago pearls used in the milk tea.
Sago pearls vs tapioca pearls
Typically sold in the form of pearls, sago can also be found in the form of a paste or flour. Sago pearls are often confused with tapioca pearls and are interchangeably used as well in cooking. To be clear though, tapioca pearls come from cassava and not from palms.
How is sago harvested?
Large stems of palms are split open longitudinally to reveal the starchy pith. A single stem of palm yields anywhere from 150 to as high as 360 kilograms of starchy material which is then ground to powder and formed into either flour, paste or pearls.
Sago is primarily carbohydrate with very little protein, vitamins and minerals. A 100-gram serving of sago contains 94 grams of carbohydrates, just 0.2 grams of proteins, a measly 0.5 grams of dietary fiber, 10 mg of calcium and negligible amounts of fats, Vitamin C, carotene and thiamine.
Dishes made of sago around the world:
- Sago can be baked into a bread, biscuit or pancake in New Guinea, Borneo, Sulawesi, Sumatra and Maluku.
- It can also be mixed into boiling water to form a starchy paste that is also eaten in these same areas.
- In Brunei, sago starch is used in making noodles and bread.
- In Malaysia, sago starch is one of the main ingredients in their popular fish cracker.
- In India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, pearl sago is used extensively in puddings.
I think sago pearls are still safe to eat. The sago we have in the Philippines comes not from the poisonous cycad but from the tropical palms and are thus free from neurotoxins.
Realize that colored sagos are dyed with artificial food colors which are not exactly healthy. I say go for brownish or grayish sago pearls if you can help it. I only use colored sago for special occasions when most people are blissfully unaware of the impact of food dyes and would find uncolored sago pearls rather sorry-looking.
Sago pearls are not nutritionally superior food items — more like fillers and extenders.