Sago Heroes and / or Heroines


The sago palm by Jean-Theodore Descourtilz.  Image from www.thefind.com.

The sago palm by Jean-Theodore Descourtilz. Image from http://www.thefind.com.

When I was a girl I lived in Singapore and one of my fondest food memories is of eating gula melaka, a pudding made of sago, palm sugar and coconut milk.

Until recently I was unaware of how much work went into producing the sago pearls that are the basic ingredient in this pudding.  The transformation from palm tree into edible starch is such an unlikely process that I am nominating the unknown (at least to me) food technologists who discovered it.  In some parts of the world people have been eating sago for hundreds of years so they certainly wouldn’t have called themselves food technologists but that is what they were.

Sago appears to have made its way to Britain during the 18th century, presumably via British ships trading in South East Asia. Cookery books from this time include recipes for sweet sago puddings made with milk, cream, eggs, lemons and spices.  The 19th century cookery icon Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for a savoury sago soup and she gives a great description of the sago making process,

“In order to procure it, the tree is felled and sawn into pieces.  The pith is then taken out, and put in receptacles of cold water, where it is stirred until the flour separates from the filaments, and sinks to the bottom, where it is suffered to remain until the water is poured off, when it is taken out and spread on wicker frames to dry.  To give it the round granular form in which we find it comes to this country, it is passed through a colander, then rubbed into little balls, and dried.”

Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861 p.79

During the 19th century Singapore was a centre for sago processing and the  National Archives of Singapore has more information including oral histories with people who worked in the sago processing industry.

N.B. Sago and tapioca are very similar and can be used interchangeably but they come from different plants.  Sago is made from palms (and palm like plants) while tapioca comes from the root of the cassava.

Stay Calm with Elizabeth David


Elizabeth David.  Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

Elizabeth David. Image from http://grazingforgirls.blogspot.co.uk

“If I had my way – and I shan’t – my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.”   From Elizabeth David’s Christmas (2003) edited by Jill Norman, p.11.

Hooray for Elizabeth David (1913-1992).  I love her for wanting to go against the grain and, in the current frenzy of Christmas preparations, the quote above is a refreshing reminder that the simple pleasures are often the best.

Elizabeth David’s Book of Mediterranean Food (1950) is often cited as the book that began to transform British cookery after the Second World War.  My Mum had a copy and I am sure we ate better because of it.   If that was the only book she wrote, it would be enough for her to qualify as a food heroine but she produced many other beautifully research books that are written in a way that makes you want to taste the food she describes.  My favourites are Summer Cooking (1955), English Bread and Yeast Cookery (1977) and The Harvest of the Cold Months: the social history of ice and ices (1994).

She knew her own mind and, although I know that she often spent Christmas with her sister’s family, I suspect that sometimes she did get her wish and retired to bed with a glass of champagne.  To find out more about her character and her rather adventurous life read Lisa Chaney’s biography Elizabeth David or the one by Artemis Cooper, Writing at the Kitchen Table.