Warm Tapioca Puddings Give Comfort on Cold Evenings
The tapioca pudding in Thailand is quite different from what westerners are used to.
Traditional wisdom in the Orient tells us to eat foods in accordance with the elements of the season in order to stay healthy. In the hot season, we eat milder and lighter foods, such as clear soups, oil-less sour salads and leafy greens, and drink cooling teas like those made from chrysanthemum flowers and pennywort leaves. In the cool season, our diet shifts to include richer and spicier foods like curries, coconut soups, and creamy coconut custards and puddings.
Among the puddings I so loved as a child are those made with tapioca pearls swimming in a warm coconut milk soup. They sometimes contain other flavor and texture elements such as starchy black beans or barley, crunchy water chestnuts, smooth creamy strips of young coconut meat, chewy sticky rice, or sweet corn kernals. These puddings warm the tummy and calm a child’s restless spirit on cool winter evenings. At the same time, they are nutritious, easy to digest, and relatively light compared with dairy-based western desserts.
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In most of Asia, tapioca pearls and the puddings made from them are called sagu, sago or sakoo – derived from a Malayan word for the sagu (pronounced “sah-koo”) palm tree (Metroxylon sagu). The sagu palm grows naturally in swampy areas of tropical Asia and is believed to have originated in the Molucca islands of Indonesia. From there, the palm found its way to the rest of Southeast Asia and to India. This 12- to 17-foot palm in the same family as the coconut palm lives for about fifteen years, after which it dies standing. During its decline, a shoot sprouts from the underground root to produce a new tree which carries on the life of the dying parent.
Since ancient times, natives on the islands of Indonesia have used the dense starchy core of the dead sagu palm’s trunk for food. The starch is made into small pellets and dried in the sun so that they can keep until needed for cooking into both savory and sweet dishes. A very common preparation is to cook the starch into a thick porridge and mix with sweetened coconut milk to make the age-old pudding that is now enjoyed throughout Indonesia, Malaysia and the rest of the Asian subcontinent.
Before rice cultivation was introduced in the fifteenth century, sagu was an important staple carbohydrate food on many of the islands in the Indonesian archipelago. Even today, the southeastern islands of the chain where sagu palms grow abundantly continue to rely on it, especially during seasons when rice yields are insufficient to feed the populations. A full-grown tree can yield as much as 600 to 800 pounds of starch for consumption. Besides the starch, the fruit of the sagu palm makes a good snack; the leaf fronds, like those of the coconut palm, are valuable thatching material for roofs; and the fibrous, peely bark can be woven into mats for use as siding for homes, into flat trays for drying foods and into storage baskets.
It is believed that sagu as a food has been around for over a thousand years. In his explorations of the Spice Islands, Marco Polo encountered and sampled it, and later, in the booming international maritime trade of the eighteenth century, sagu was among the prized commodities from these islands, favored especially by Chinese merchants. Even western merchants in those days became intrigued with sagu and brought it to their homeland where sagu pudding soon became a popular dessert.
Though sagu palm starch is still used to make puddings, it has been replaced in much of Southeast Asia by the starch from the manioc or cassava root, which grows prevalently, take much less time to mature and are easier to harvest. Most of the tapioca pearls imported into America today are made from the latter. In Southeast Asian markets, they come in tiny round pellets in a choice of white, light green and purplish pink. The colors are natural –– the green from the fragrant juice extract of pandanus leaf and the pink from the lovely purple flower of a tropical vine called anchan. Occasionally, you might encounter a mixture of louder colors like bright orange and red, which are from artificial food dyes.
Use the small pellets for the following recipe. For a more substantial, chewy texture, try the larger pearls the size of fish-eye pupils in the first recipe, or use it in savory soups for both an interesting visual and textural component, as well as a source of carbohydrate.
This recipe is also available on our website as Tapioca Black Bean Pudding.
Tapioca Black Bean Pudding Recipe (Sakoo Tua Dtam)
- 1/2 cup black beans
- 1/2 cup small tapioca pearls
- 2 cups, or 1 can coconut milk
- 3/4 cup granulated sugar, to taste
- 1 tsp. sea salt, to taste
Pick through and discard any shriveled beans. Cover with water and soak for two or more hours.
Bring 1 1/2 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan. Add the beans and return to a boil. Simmer covered over low heat until the beans are tender, stirring occasionally and adding more boiling water if the beans are drying up. When tender, stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 cup sugar, and simmer a while longer for the beans to absorb the flavorings. [Beans may also be cooked in a pressure cooker, adding the salt and sugar when the beans are cooked.]
When the beans are in their last stretch of cooking, heat 2 cups of water in another saucepan. While waiting for the water to come to a boil, rinse the tapioca pearls in a fine-mesh strainer under running cool tap water until thoroughly wet. Drain and let sit a minute or two for the pearls to absorb surface water, then add to the boiling water. Reduce heat and stir frequently until the pearls clear (8 to 10 minutes). If the mixture becomes too thick, add a little more water to help cook the tapioca until all the pearls are cooked through.
Make a coconut sauce by combining the coconut milk, 1/2 cup sugar and 1/2 teaspoon salt in a saucepan. Heat and simmer about 5 minutes to thicken slightly.
When both the beans and tapioca are cooked, mix them together and pour in the coconut sauce. Stir to blend. Serve warm. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
As with many Thai snacks and desserts, the coconut cream topping is salty sweet to contrast with the bottom layer of pudding which is sweeter. The saltiness makes the cream taste richer; the cream is not meant to be eaten by itself, but together with its sweeter companion.
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, October 2009.