The trunk of the sago palm hides more than carbohydrates.
If the tree is cut down and left on the ground - or if the trunk is split open and its shavings set aside in a container - for about three months, the eggs of a type of beetle hatch into plump white larvae that are a well-loved (by some) source of protein.
After we'd seen the sago's trunk processed into flour and sampled a few sago starch snacks, we turned our attention to sago worms. Longtime readers of EatingAsia know that we are not 'adventure eaters' and that we have a problem with the 'Bizarre Foods' approach to food travel reportage. We don't land in a locale and ask to be directed to the weirdest, wackiest, wildest food possible, because we're interested in learning about cultures and people via their food, not in characterizing a locale's cuisine based on the Eeewwww Factor.
But, we came to Banza barangay to learn how a palm tree is turned into a foodstuff basic to many Southeast Asian cuisines. The larvae that grow in the sago palm are also eaten. It seemed to be something we should investigate.
In this case the larvae were 'incubated' in a mound of sago trunk shavings. After the critters are unearthed they're dropped in a cup of water for a rinse.
The worms varied in size from about two to five or six centimeters. Squishing one in half reveals the source of their appeal: sago worms are nothing but head and gooey fat.
Here, the worms are often eaten as is, uncooked, just popped in the mouth after perhaps a dip in nipa vinegar or tuba (sago worm kinilaw, as it were).
We couldn't go there, and here's where nurture-not-nature comes into play. We simply could not bring ourselves to place one of those fat, wriggling things in our mouths. Our Filipino companion, a Manila native, had come determined to try sago worm kinilaw. He couldn't do it either.
Happily for us - because we did want to taste the worms in one form or another - they're also eaten cooked.
Fried in a dry pan over high heat, to be precise, with a couple of pinches of salt.
As the worms cook they become translucent and, after a few minutes, we could literally see the fat bubbling underneath their skins. At this point the cook used the sharp edge of his spatula to break the skins and allow the liquid fat to escape into the pan.
After about fifteen minutes the larvae were transformed into the golden brown, shrunken specimens in the opening photograph, something much easier to contemplate putting in my mouth than the very worm-y worms they'd started out as.
And frankly, they were delicious. Crispy, salty, and greasy, with a lick of smoke - what's not to love? Our friend said they reminded him of chicharron; we wished for vinegar for dipping. After munching on several of the smallest larvae I went for a meatier specimen. More fat and some chewy 'meat' which, to me, evinced a pleasant bit of prawnish brine.
Most of the villagers declined to partake when we offered the plate around. Many wrinkled their noses in disgust (especially the ladies - sago worms are pulutan or 'drinking food'; they're also, as with so many other 'difficult' foods, said to be an aphrodisiac).
Would I seek them out again? No. Tasty as they were, they were far from the most delicious thing we ate during our time on Mindanao. But if a serving were laid in front of me I'd probably down a few, especially if I had an ice-cold San Miguel in one hand.