Ask Peter: Tapioca and sago
I’ve seen some recipes for sago and rice puddings that require lengthy stirring, like a risotto. I loved your sago pudding at The Sugar Club and am wondering what method you use to get it so creamy but still in individual grains. Would tapioca be easier to cook with?
Sago vs tapioca: they may appear identical, but they’re sourced quite differently.
Tapioca comes from cassava - a long root of a vegetable. In some South American countries the root is actually called tapioca. Sago is made from the pith of the sago palm. However, parenting aside, they are very similar and behave the same. Personally, I prefer using tapioca, but that’s just habit I suppose.
The method for cooking tapioca so that it doesn’t stick together is the following.
- Bring 2 litres of water to the boil then gently whisk in ½ cup small tapioca pearls and bring back to a boil. Turn to a gentle boil and cook for 10 minutes.
- Gently whisk in 1 cup cold water and cook another 5 minutes.
- Add another cup cold water and cook until the pearls are transparent.
- By adding the fresh water (by my not-likely-to-be-scientific reasoning) the water is diluted, from the starch that’s released from the grains, and this (I think) allows them to swell up and fully cook quicker.
- Strain into a very fine sieve and then it’s up to you what you can do with them.
As this point, the glossy see-through pearls are wanting to do nothing more than absorb more liquid, so the coconut ones you refer to are immersed in 2½ times their volume in a mixture of coconut cream that’s been cooked with 50 per cent of its volume of water and sugar to taste.
Adding a pandan leaf (or extract is easier to use) adds even more deliciousness, and if you don’t need them to be pearly white, use palm sugar in the mixture.
At the Sugar Club we were also serving rhubarb pearls with a steamed lemon pudding. For this, we stewed rhubarb with sugar to taste, vanilla and verjus for acidity. Once cooked we mixed the pearls into it and they absorb colour and flavour and simply looked really pretty. We also have a much loved paddle-crab linguine dish on the menu and for that we garnish it with crayfish bisque-soaked pearls.
I’ve also make some interesting fritters whereby I pureed fish and mixed it with crab meat, lots of pureed Thai flavours (galangal, ginger, lime leaves, lemongrass, garlic and chillies), added a generous amount of uncooked tapioca, then enough water to make it a little sloppy. Leave it for 20 minutes (the tapioca will absorb excess moisture) then roll it up in baking paper and foil and bake in a covered dish with 1cm water on the bottom. If the roll is about 5-6cm diameter it will take 90 minutes to cook. Leave to cool, then slice and deep-fry for a really unusual crunchy crabby fritter — great served with tamarind aioli.
Failing that you could make sago pudding like my gran did.
- Bring to the boil a sugar syrup with loads of coarsely grated lemon zest (no pith), cinnamon and lemon juice.
- Add sago (or tapioca) and bring back to the boil, then cook, stirring frequently, until the mixture looks like wallpaper paste. It will likely stick to the bottom of the pot so you do need to keep stirring.
- Finish it with more lemon juice and sugar to taste.
- If served warm I’d always stir top-milk into it to make it less claggy; if cold, it was scooped out of the dish and served with poached stonefruit or berries.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to [email protected] and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.