In Asia and India, taste is as much about the texture of food as it is about the flavour. That is why such flavourless ingredients such as the wide range of grains used, and tofu are often the star of the dish, while the flavoursome ingredients play a back role. Sago and Tapioca fall into this group – valued for its mouth feel, its slightly bouncy, often gelatinous texture.
Subudana or Subu is sago or tapioca (often called tapioca sago) and these are mostly used interchangeably in Indian cooking. Indeed the rules of the Indian Standards Institution set in 1956 determine that sago can be made from either true sago or tapioca starch. There is often confusion about which is which, because sago and tapioca look remarkably the same. Both are typically small, dry, opaque balls. Both are white in colour, if pure. When soaked and cooked, both become much larger, translucent, soft and spongy. Both are widely used around the world, usually in puddings. But tapioca comes from tubers of the cassava plant and sago comes from the sago palm. And they require different preparation for some recipes.
To add to the confusion, packaging and distribution companies often refer to sago as tapioca and vice versa. This makes no difference if you are making a sticky sago pudding or a payasam, but for some recipes, such as Sago Kitchari, the pearls of sago remains more separated than tapioca pearls will. Sago needs to be soaked for a longer period of time than tapioca and is less temperamental to deal with.
Another source of confusion is that sago and tapioca can be partially pre-cooked, although there may not be any indication of this on the packaging other than being called Nylon Sago. Nylon Sago is steamed and then dried. It does look slightly different, and this is the main clue if it is not labelled.
True Sago and Tapioca
True sago comes from the starchy inner trunk of various palm trees, in particular the sago palms which take about 15 years to reach maturity. The palm is felled just before first flowering, at which time there is a large store of starch in the trunk.
The sago starch is very similar to the tuber tapioca, also called cassava, in appearance, texture and thickening ability.
Sabudana in India
Sabudana was introduced to India only in the 1940’s, but both forms were readily incorporated into the cuisine. Tamil Nadu in the South was the first to begin producing the pearly balls. Sago production started as a cottage industry where tapioca roots were pulped, the milk-extract filtered and the milk settled, globules formed and roasted. Soon, ingenious machinery was developed to produce sabudana and India is now the foremost producer of the product.
Sabudana is especially important on days of fasting (vrat-upawas), i.e. at Navratri, Shravana, Ekadashi and Purnima times.
Sweet or Savoury?
Around the world, Sago and Tapioca is used to make delicious puddings. In the Philipines, a drink is made with sago pearls. S. E. Asia has an array of sweet treats featuring sago – the most popular is the Malaysian/Indonesian Sago Pudding – a stunning mound of sago pearls bathed in palm sugar syrup and coconut milk. S. E. Asia also makes a sweet soup of sweet potato in a ginger syrup where the sago bobs around on the top of the soup. Sago is also the basis for a range of cakes.
In India, Sabudana is used to make excellent desserts such as halwa, payasam and kheer, as well as savoury dishes such as upma, kitchari, vada, cutlets, papad/fryums, khichia, chakal, and bonda. It goes especially well with potatoes, peanuts, and green chillies, thus these often feature in the savoury dishes.
Grades and Sizes of Sabudana
Sago and Tapioca come in different sizes – small, medium and large pearls.
- Small pearls are between 1mm to 1.5 mm diameter, locally known as Motidana and popularly used in Eastern part of India
- Medium pearls are between 2 mm to 2.5 mm diameter – this is the international standard size and is locally known as Khirdana
- Large pearls are between 3 mm to 4 mm diameter – the common popular size all over India, locally called Badadana.
Most recipes world-wide require medium, where the uncooked pearls are about the size of a black peppercorn. India most commonly uses the larger size.
Boiled, or Nylon Sabudana is also manufactured in three sizes.
- Small, is 2 mm diameter, locally known in India as Chinidana or Smaller Ceylon Nylon
- Medium is 3 mm diameter, popularly called as Ceylon Nylon
- Large is between 5 to 7 mm diameter which is called locally as Glass Nylon or Phooldana
Common Sabudana and Nylon Sago
Sabudana is often referred to as Roasted Sago or Common Sago, and it absorbs more water than the Nylon Sago. However, if fried, Nylon Sago expands more than Roasted Sabudana.
Similarly, Nylon Sago has more transparency in its raw appearance, whereas Roasted Variety has no transparency. The colour of the two varieties are also different, as Nylon Sago becomes a glowingly transparent creamer-yellow colour when cooked, whereas Roasted Sago retains the original natural white colour – like a Milk colour.
Soaking Sago and Tapioca
For soaking sago, rinse it in cold water once, then soak it in just enough hot water (not boiling) to cover the sago, for 2 hours. Be precise about this time, it gives the best results. Don’t over-soak it or it will turn to a sticky paste, and 2 hours the sago pearls begin to stick together. At 2 hours the sago has absorbed all of the water, doubled in size, and become separate and fluffy. Gently rake the soaked sago pearls between your fingers to separate them.
If it is necessary to soak for longer, make sure to fluff the sago with a fork every 1 – 2 hours.
For tapioca, do not rinse it but soak it in cold water for 30 minutes only.
Sago and Tapioca are very heat sensitive. Cooked over higher heats will turn it into a gluggy mixture. For puddings, payasams and other desserts, this is perfect. For pilafs and kitcharis, the pearls need to be separate. In these cases, the pearls are gently folded into warm, rather than hot, other ingredients.
Reheating such dishes should be done over a low heat whilst stirring constantly.
Health Considerations and Alternative Uses
Sabudana is rich in complex carbohydrates, and it digests slowly so you don’t feel hungry after eating it.
Sabudana can also be used in homemade facial masks and hair masks – the pearls can be mashed and mixed with Honey & Lemon or Avocados or Chamomile Tea to make a thick paste. This paste is said to help smooth the skin and eradicate acne and scars from the face.
Purchasing Sago and Tapioca
Buy your Sabudana at an Indian grocer, to make sure that you get the right product.
Sago and Tapioca also can be purchased as flour, and as short, dried, multicoloured strips called bee thye buck. These are soaked in liquid then cooked in syrup scented with pandan and served as a cold sweet and refreshing drink with crushed ice.
Sago flour is the basis for many Malaysian and Indonesian steamed cakes such as Jongkong Sago (steamed banana leaf packages with a sago and rice flour centre with young coconut flesh and coconut milk).
Try some recipes
Thank you to Kurma from Cooking with Kurma for very precise information about cooking Sabudana.