For years we've been eating sago - in the form of the pearls that float about in Taiwan bubble tea and the flour that lends a wonderful chew to various Southeast Asian sweet treats - without knowing exactly where it comes from.
Nor did we know that Mindanaoans owe their survival of Word War II, in large part, to lumbia, the local name for the sago palm. During the war sago flour, a highly absorbent carbohydrate source that expands in the belly to make one feel full, stood in for rice. This we learned from the residents of Barangay Banza (Butuan City), where last month we were gifted the opportunity to watch the processing of this ancient foodstuff from start to finish.
The sago palm grows wild near brackish water in much of coastal Southeast Asia; in some areas it's also cultivated. At the end of its fifteeen-year life cycle, right before it begins to flower, the tree is felled for the starch stored in its trunk.
Getting at the stuff is no easy task (using traditional methods, that is; these days much sago is industrially processed). The trunk is splt and its insides hacked out, bit by bit, by a blunt hoe-wielding strongman.
It takes a few hours of strenuous labor to shred the trunk to nothingness. As the 'shredder' works, trunk innards are transferred to a large container - in this case, a disused dugout canoe - and doused with water.
As he adds water to the sago palm shreds, the man responsible for processing the sago kneads them repeatedly to extract their starch. It turns the water the color of milky Thai iced tea.
After the sago shreds have been thorougly moistened and kneaded they're squeezed dry, handful by handful. The final squeeze takes place over a mesh-lined sieve suspended over the boat, and the spent shreds are discarded.
This gentleman was washing and kneading and squeezing when we arrived around 9am. He was still at it a few hours later. After years of making sago flour he knows by touch, he says, when all the starch has been squeezed from the sago shreds. When he's finished, a mound of fine white starch hides underwater, in the depths of the canoe.
Left aside for a day, the water evaporates. What little is left the next morning can easily be scooped, without disturbing the puddle of sago starch, out of the canoe with a shallow pan.
At this point the flour is scraped off of the bottom of the canoe. It comes up willingly, in big, flat slabs of snow-white velvet.
Though it feels dry when rubbed between the fingers, the sago flour hides moisture. Setting it aside in storage at this stage would result in much moldy flour and hours of wasted effort,
so the starch is further drained in ingenious and beautiful conical sieves made from the base of the leaf of the sago palm from whence it came.
The hole at the bottom of the cone is loosely blocked with a bit of discarded shredded sago palm trunk,
and then the flour, just scraped from the bottom of the canoe, is packed tight within.
A triangle of palm leaf, placed inside the cone with its point covering the very bottom,insures that the packed flour can effortlessly be dislodged from its sieve once it's completely dried.
The cones are then tied upright and the flour left to finish draining and drying for several days. When all is said and done each cone will hold about ten kilos of sago flour.
The resulting sago flour - or unau, as it's called in these parts - can be used immediately, or it can be transformed into kinabu, which is essentially toasted flour, via a few turns in a dry pan. Kinabu can be kept without spoiling for up to a year. It's used to make a number of cakes, and can also stretch a meal if added to cooked rice at a ratio of about 1 cup kinabu to 1 kilo rice.
Next up, sago nibbles.