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Sago: Cooking with Asian ingredients at home

Beate Baldry forages for exciting Asian ingredients readily available in Singapore, to discover their traditional uses, health benefits and ways to incorporate them into Western home cooking.


This month’s ingredient: Sago (alias: tapioca)

What is it?

Sago is a starch extracted from the pith of the tropical sago palm. which is actually not a palm but a cycad. It is used interchangeably with tapioca in many recipes, but the two are essentially different as they come from different plants; tapioca is extracted from the cassava root. They have similar properties and, interestingly, both contain toxins before they are processed.

The flavour

Sago is known more for its texture than its flavour. Rather tasteless in itself, it is found in many Asian drinks and desserts where it takes on the flavour of other ingredients when cooked with them.

Where do you find it?

Supermarkets stock both sago flour and dried sago pearls.


Sago starch can be used to make bread, pancakes and biscuits.

It can be mixed with boiling water to form a paste, which is then forced through a sieve under high pressure to form the sago pearls that are used to make desserts.

Sago powder is used worldwide as a thickening agent in foods.

In Malaysia, the traditional kerepok lekor (fish sausage) has sago as one of its main ingredients, together with salt and fish.

In addition to its use as a food source, the leaves of the sago palm are used in construction and for thatching roofs.

Sago starch is used in the textile industry to treat the fibre in fabric. Biodegradable plastic and ethanol can be made from fermented sago starch.


Health benefits

Sago is almost purely carbohydrate and is a staple food in some countries. Nevertheless, it has very little protein, vitamins or minerals.

Try it in town

Each A Cup – Order an ice-blended bubble tea, flavoured coffee, or juice and you’ll be offered large or mini “bubbles” – coloured sago pearls. With their gummy bear texture, these pearls add some chewy fun to your drink. Various locations island wide.   

Top Tip: Rinse sago pearls under cold water to stop the cooking process and retain a slightly firm, gelatinous texture. This also helps avoid the pearls clumping together. 

Cook with it at home 


Apple Coconut Sago Pudding

Coconut sago pudding traditionally calls for refreshing mango as its accompaniment, but this recipe uses poached apples for a comfort-food take on the dish. Hints of apple pie and cream are given an exotic slant with coconut milk.

Serves 4 to 6


• 2-3 large apples

• A dash of cinnamon powder

• ½ cup sago pearls (small)

• 1 tablespoon sugar

• 2 cups coconut milk

• Pinch of salt


Peel, core and cut the apples into small, even cubes or slices. In a saucepan over a low heat, cook the apples with the cinnamon powder and a couple of tablespoons of water until soft. This step can be done earlier and the apple warmed up before serving.

In a separate small saucepan, combine the coconut milk, sugar and salt and bring to a simmer. Stir for about five minutes until the sauce thickens and the sugar dissolves.

Bring four cups of water to the boil in a large saucepan. Whisk in the sago pearls and cook until translucent; drain them once you see a mere pin-prick of white at the core, as the beads will have cooked by the time you have rinsed them. It is important to stir very frequently to prevent the formation of clumps.

Add the sago pearls to the coconut sauce and mix well, divide into separate glass serving bowls and top with equal amounts of warm, poached cinnamon apple.