Sabudana: Pearls of the kitchen

Shabnam Minwalla | Updated on May 03, 2019

Bites of history: The first crude sabudana-making units in India were set up in 1943   -  ISTOCK.COM

The bland, accommodating nature of sago allows it be used in all kinds of dishes

It’s horrid to imagine life without the occasional plate of sabudana khichri— that delightfully contrary dish that’s somehow soft and crunchy, zingy and comforting at the same time. Just as it’s sad that years can sometimes slip by without a single breakfast at Prakash Shakahari Upahar Kendra, purveyor of the most reliable sabudana vadas in Mumbai. Always crisp on the outside and air-light on the inside. Always worth the drive and the wait. Even worth the having to share a table with three disapproving gents who clearly want to consume their thalipeeth in chatter-free peace.

Few things make me as happy as a plate of sabudana khichri studded with peanuts and golden potatoes. Or a warm stack of sabudana vadas, served alongside a punchy, peanutty chutney. Or even the silky, milky sabudana porridge made for babies and invalids.

The bottom line is that I love sabudana. Even though I’m constantly being told I shouldn’t.

I’ve heard horror stories about the making of the little white balls from the pith of sago leaves or tapioca roots. (Unhygienic. Fermented in open pits full of insects. Strong smells.)

I know that each bead is nothing more than a “small, rounded starch aggregate, partly gelatinised by heating”. In short, pure carbs, unredeemed by the slightest trace of protein, vitamins or minerals.

I know that sabudana has a sneaky tendency to misbehave. However carefully you soak it, there are days when the khichri clumps together in a sticky mess. On other days the little balls remain hard and obstreperous.

All of which makes no difference. To me, sabudana is the stuff of memories. Of snacks served at the homes of friends after a long, hungry day in school (so much more welcoming than the pale glass of milk waiting at my own home); lunches in the office canteen on wet, windy days during the month of Shravan; quick bites grabbed at bus depots during rattly rides from Sholapur to Kolhapur. There’s more — foodie journeys to Pune aboard the Deccan Queen and meals at modest Maharashtrian eateries across Mumbai — Kelkar Vishranti Gruha in Fort, Mama Kane’s in Dadar and Vinay Health Home in Girgaon.

It is also the taste of tradition. After all, sabudana plays a starring role during the Navratri fasts. It pops up virtually everywhere during Shravan and is used in papads, kheers, laddoos and halwas. How much more desi can you get?

Then I sat down to write this piece, and realised that the tale of sabudana in India is much more recent than I’d imagined. Tapioca and sago arrived here just 150 years ago as fancy exports from Singapore and Malaysia. It was only during World War II — when exporting commodities became difficult — that the first, crude sabudana units were set up in Salem in 1943. This seems to indicate that sabudana khichriand sabudana vada — seemingly so infused with tradition and history — were invented around the same time as the computer.

Outside India, though, the beads have a hoary past. Sago was an important food in China about 5,000 years ago, before rice stormed the scene. It, however, remained a staple in Southeast Asia through the millennia. At the end of the 13th century, Marco Polo introduced it to West. “They have a kind of tree that produces flour, and excellent flour it is for food,” he wrote about his time in The Sixth Kingdom of Fanfur (Indonesia). “The trees are tall and thick but have very thin bark and inside the bark they are crammed with flour.”

Almost 300 years later, Sir Francis Drake brought back sago bread from his voyage around the world and explained that it came from the “toppes of certain trees, tasting in the mouth like some curds, but melts away like sugar...”

Indeed, it is this bland, accommodating quality that makes these pearls so useful. In an article on the rediscovery of tapioca pudding — that once reviled boarding school dessert, dubbed frog’s spawn or eyeball pudding by English schoolboys — The Guardian explains that “Tapioca is the perfect blank canvas; its capacity to hold colour, to absorb and release a burst of flavour, and its versatile texture are exactly why chefs love it.”

Little wonder then that sago and tapioca pearls manage to be all things to all people. They sit atop halo halo — that beloved rainbow-hued dessert of the Philippines, made from shaved ice, seaweed, sweet cheese, evaporated milk, coconut, syrups, fruit and ice cream. They are drizzled with palm sugar and coconut milk in Malaysia’s chewy, addictive sago gula melaka. They form the translucent dough used to wrap pork dumplings in Thailand. They’re used to make beef-stuffed pancakes in Brazil, and sometimes boiled with red wine and spices. They make a fabulous counterpoint for mango and pineapple desserts popular across tropical countries.

And, of course, they are the fat, glossy bubbles in Taiwanese boba tea — that big craze of the moment.

Meanwhile, chefs across the world are experimenting with the magical beads — cooking them with squid ink, serving them with oysters, conjuring up cakes fit for a fairy. In short, finding out something that many of us have known forever. You can’t go wrong with these pearls of the kitchen.

shabnam   -  BUSINESS LINE


Shabnam Minwalla is a journalist and author. Her latest book is What Maya Saw

Mango pearl marvel
  • (4 servings)
  • Ingredients
  • 1/2 cup sabudana
  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla essence
  • Salt
  • One 14-ounce can coconut milk
  • 3 tbsp sugar
  • 2 cups peeled and diced mango
  • 1 tbsp finely grated lime zest
  • 2 tbsp lime juice
  • Method
  • 1. In a large pan, combine the sabudana, whole milk, vanilla, sugar and salt. Bring to a simmer over moderate heat and cook for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the sabudana is translucent and tender. Whisk in the coconut milk.
  • 2. Cook over moderate heat for about five minutes, stirring occasionally, until thickened. Transfer to a bowl and let cool to room temperature.
  • 3. Combine the mango, lime zest and juice. Transfer half to a food processor and purée. Stir the purée into the diced mango. Divide half of the fruit into four glasses, add the tapioca pudding, then top with the remaining fruit. Cover the puddings and refrigerate for about 2 hours.

Published on May 03, 2019

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