In Defence of Sago

Sago Gula Melaka

“Frog spawn!” said my husband when I told him what I was writing my next post on. He’s right. There is no getting away from it, cooked sago does indeed resemble frog spawn. Tiny, slippery, translucent globes, which even clump together in the way that floating frog spawn in a pond does. In England, the mere mention of sago arouses strong emotions, usually negative ones. Memories of school dinners and being forced to eat slimy, tasteless sago puddings . . .

My memories are from Singapore, where sago is served in a delightful pudding called sago gula melaka which consists simply of chilled cooked sago served with coconut milk and palm sugar syrup. The gula melaka refers to the sugar syrup poured over the sago, made from gula melaka, the hard, dark brown sugar made from palm sap and named after the Malaysian port of Malacca. When prepared properly, sago gula melaka is flavoured by the pandan leaf, the long, glossy, dark green leaf known in English as screwpine which adds both flavour and a distinctive light green colouring to many South-East Asian desserts. Although not aromatic in the way that, say, a bay leaf is, the pandan leaf adds a very subtle, yet distinctive flavour. As a child in tropical Singapore, a serving of sago gula melaka was a treat to be savoured: the bland, cool, refreshing, jelly-like sago with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk contrasting with the dark, bitter caramel flavour of the palm sugar syrup.

In England I never quite know how it will do down with my guests or, indeed, if it will go down at all. One charming friend to whom I served it said politely “I like the coconut milk and the palm sugar syrup . . .” On the other hand, when I taught a cookery class on Singaporean food at Rosalind Rathouse’s Cookery School and demonstrated how to make sago gula Melaka then served it up, fully expecting rejection, the young women in the class – none of whom had ever come across sago– all loved it! Now so unfamiliar as to be positively exotic, maybe sago’s time has come.

Sago Gula Melaka

200g fine sago or tapioca pearls
200g palm sugar (gula Melaka)
2 pandan leaves
1 x 400ml tin of coconut milk
a pinch of salt

Bring a large pan of water to the boil. Add in the sago pearls and, stirring, return to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes stirring now and then. Remove from direct heat, cover and set aside for 10 minutes. Uncover the pan, by which time the sago should be translucent, and drain in a sieve. Rinse the sago under cold running water and set aside in a sieve to drain thoroughly. Transfer the sago to four bowls rinsed with cold water, allow to cool, then chill until serving.
Place the palm sugar and 200ml of water in a heavy-based saucepan. Tie a pandan leaf in a knot and add in. Bring to the boil and simmer until the palm sugar has melted into a syrup. Strain into a jug and set aside to cool.
Shake the can of coconut milk thoroughly, then pour the coconut milk into a pan. Tie the pandan leaf in a knot and add to the coconut milk with a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then simmer stirring until slightly reduced. Strain into a jug, cool and chill.
To serve, slide a knife around each portion of sago and transfer onto serving dishes. Pour over some coconut milk and a little of the palm sugar syrup and enjoy!

A Liking for Laksa

Jenny’s Laksa

On the list of foods I turn to for comfort eating, laksa comes pretty high. This South-East Asian, fishy noodle soup always reminds me of Singapore, bringing back happy memories of meals with my family there. While laksa is simply a one-pot meal, it’s the contrasting flavours and textures contained in that one bowl which make it special. The rich, spicy soup contrasts deliciously with the plain noodles, the cool pieces of cucumber and slightly crunchy bean sprouts. There is something very pleasurable about slurping up the slippery noodles and hunting for a juicy prawn or bouncy fish ball.

As is characteristic of South East Asian dishes, there are many, many recipes for laksa. One broad distinction is between ‘laksa lemak’, made with rich, creamy-textured coconut milk, and the tangy Penang laksa, made from a tamarind-flavoured fish stock, which I ate at Gurney Drive esplanade in Penang. A truly memorable laksa I enjoyed was chef Peter Gordon’s smoked chicken laksa, served in small bowls as a sensationally flavourful canapé at a smart drinks reception.
The recipe below comes from my Singaporean uncle, Kim Bong, who cooks a vast pot of laksa for family get-togethers, nipping out to pick the laksa leaf from his garden as a garnish just before serving it. Ingredients such as galangal, blachan, dried shrimps and Chinese fish balls can all be bought in Chinese supermarkets. The addition of dried shrimps – finely ground in a food processor – both thickens the broth and gives a fishy sweetness. I sometimes make this using home-made prawn stock as the base for an extra punch of seafood flavour. You can add in fried tofu, chunks of salmon, chopped up squid or different types of noodles as you wish. It’s one of those dishes that lends itself to experimenting with.
Uncle Kim’s Laksa
(serves four)
3 stalks of lemon grass
2 small onions, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
a 5 cm piece of galangal, peeled and chopped
1 tsp blachan (dried shrimp paste)
1 tsp ground turmeric
1 tsp ground chilli
4 tsp ground coriander
225g of bean sprouts, blanched
450g fresh thick round Chinese noodles
2-3 tbsp oil
2 x 400ml tins of coconut milk
75g dried shrimps, finely ground
200g Chinese white fish balls
8 raw peeled tiger prawns
1/2 cucumber, peeled and cut into short fine strips
a handful of laksa leaf (Vietnamese coriander) or coriander sprigs

Peel the tough outer casing from lemon grass and finely chop the white bulbous part of the stalks. Blend together the lemon grass, onion, garlic, galangal, blachan, turmeric, chilli and ground coriander into a paste.
Divide the noodles and bean sprouts among four deep serving bowls.
Heat the oil in a large,, heavy-based saucepan. Fry the onion paste, stirring often, for 10 minutes till fragrant. Mix in the coconut milk and, stirring, bring to the boil. Mix in the ground dried shrimps and simmer for 5 minutes. Add in the fish balls and tiger prawns. Simmer gently until the fish balls are heated through and the prawns cooked; a matter of minutes. Taste and season with salt, if required.
Pour the coconut soup over the noodles and bean sprouts. Top with cucumber shreds and coriander and serve at once.