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Sago is a a starch that comes from the sago palm. Like many other starches such as corn or potato starch, it is used in cooking and baking as a thickener. It may also be used to stiffen fabrics.
The sago palm commonly grows in Papua New Guinea and in Southeast Asia. It usually takes about 15 years for the tree to mature and its starch to become useable. In order to remove the starch, the tree must be cut down and the material, or pith, inside scooped out. After the pith is scooped out, workers beat it using either sticks or knives to remove the starch. They then wet the pith and knead it to extract more starch.
After kneading the wet pith, workers push it through a strainer, such as a feed sack and squeeze the starchy water out. They continue to squeeze the pith until all the starch is removed. The water drains away from the starch, which is collected in containers and allowed to dry fully.
Sago is commonly used to make a pudding known as gula or goula. The starch used in the pudding can either be in ground form or in the shape of small balls. A person makes gula by mixing the starch with water and boiling it. After the sago and water is left to sit for several minutes, excess water is strained off and the remaining sago is mixed with coconut milk. The pudding is usually served with a sweet palm syrup.
The dry starch is also often used as a flour and can be mixed into a dough to produce a food that is something like a bread or biscuit. In Papua New Guinea, it is often spread out thinly on a frying pan and cooked into a pancake. It can also be a primary ingredient in noodles.
In India, sago is used in the form of small beads or pearls that much resemble the tapioca pearls used in bubble tea drinks. The pearl form is known as Sabudana and is often used to make a sort of porridge known as Khichdi. Khichdi is commonly eaten for breakfast.
The palm that grows in New Guinea and Southeast Asia and that produces the starch should not be confused with Cycas revoluta, which is commonly grown as a houseplant and also known as sago palm. Cycas revoluta is not actually a palm tree. No part of the plant should be eaten, since it is poisonous to both humans and animals.
@zeak4hands - Palm sago isn't just to eat. It's in a lot of other things and I have no idea how people figured it out!
Sago is used in making biodegradable plastic, some types of glue, treating cloth fibers and making paper.
I think the worst use for it is in making high-fructose corn syrup and maltodextrin. I don't like eating either in my food -- one makes you gain weight and the other gives you diarrhea.
I was a little bummed when I found out that sago is in short supply and that local farmers are having trouble with their crops because companies are selling it abroad instead.
I recently visited Papua New Guinea and wow -- Sago pancakes are so good! The gula pudding is too and it has a perfect texture. It was very satisfying as breakfast. It was like oatmeal only tastier!
I always try to figure out how someone could have found out about stuff like sago. The tree is poisonous, but somehow people figured out how to extract the starch and that it was safe to eat.