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.