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"Food from the Sago Palm" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following report on the sago palm was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 16, Jan. 14, 1943.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


The pith of the sago palm is used for food in the Solomon Islands and all the land area east thereof, up to and including the Malay Peninsula. It can be a ready and substantial source of food when more normal means of subsistence are, for one reason or another, not available. This tree is found growing wild in almost every swamp, and near most streams and lakes. Unless planted and cultivated, it is not usually found on high ground.

a. Description

The full-grown sago palm reaches a height of over 25 feet and has a diameter of about 2 feet (see accompanying picture). The outer surface of the trunk is a hard shell of tough fibrous wood an inch or less in thickness, while the entire inner portion is filled with a soft pithy substance about the consistency of cheese, with numerous coarse, rather brittle fibers running through it. The pith at the lower end of the trunk is a brownish red in color, fading out to a pure white at the top.

[Sago Palm - Detail of Trunk and Fronds]

The leaves are long, feather-like fronds with a thick midrib bearing long sharp spines. On mature trees the leaf stems or midribs range from 8 to 12 feet in length; they are so strong that the natives use them for building the walls of their houses. At the base, where they encircle the trunk of the palm, the leaf stems are concave in shape and have a diameter of around two feet. Young trees have the entire trunk covered with leaves, but as the tree matures those on the lower part of the trunk fall off.

b. Flowers and Fruit

When the sago palm is about 15 years old it sends up tall spikes of pink or reddish flowers at the top. The flowers later develop into clusters of nut-like fruit, dry and scaly, and somewhat resembling small pine cones but having a smooth shiny surface.

To obtain the maximum amount of sago, the natives cut the palm just before the flower develops, for if the fruit is allowed to mature it will absorb all the pithy substance and the tree will be little more than a hollow shell. A certain amount of sago could probably be obtained from younger trees several years before they reach maturity, but it would be more difficult to extract and the yield might not be worth the effort involved. However, it should not be difficult, in a large grove of trees, to locate some trees on which the flower stalks were visible but not yet fully developed. A tree on which the fruit had already appeared would be of no value.

c. Extracting the Sago

To obtain the sago from the standing tree is relatively simple. The tree is first cut down and the thin outer shell removed. If an axe, hatchet, machete, or similar heavy knife is available for cutting down the tree, no additional equipment is necessary, as the further stages in the operation can be carried out with materials readily obtained in the forest. The outer shell having been removed and the pith exposed, the pith is cut and beaten into pulp. The next step is to mash the sago starch or flour from the pith (see sketch below).

[Sago Palm Washing Trough]

The washing trough, in which the pulpy mass is placed, can be made out of the base of one of the sago-leaf stems. As the base of the leaf stem clasps the trunk, it is quite large and for a considerable distance is concave on one side so that it makes an excellent trough. The portion used is usually from eight to ten feet long, and is set up on stakes so that one end is lower than the other. The strainer at the lower end of the trough, through which the pulverized pith is washed, is usually made of the fibrous covering of the leaf stem of the coconut palm. The mashed pith is dumped into the trough and water poured over it to wash out the starch. During this process it is worked with the hands or pounded with a stick to break it up still more. The basin into which the starchy water runs may be another sago leaf stem or a container made of large flat leaves. After the starchy water has remained in this container for a short while, it separates into a precipitate of fine flour at the bottom and water on top. The water may then be drained off, leaving a mass of damp flour as the final product of the process. When wrapped in leaves (or put in an ordinary cloth bag), this keeps for weeks.

d. Cooking

The natives have two methods of cooking sago: in gruel and pancakes. Sago gruel is made by adding boiling water to a lump of flour and stirring it in a pot over the fire until the whole mixture has a uniform, thick consistency. The technique is similar to that of preparing oatmeal. The natives then dip out spoonfuls of the gruel onto leaves and allow it to cool. When cool, it is a gelatinous cake, which may be either eaten at once or kept for several days. Natives usually carry these cakes with them when they go on trips. To Europeans these cakes are rather flat and tasteless. This could probably easily be remedied by including some flavoring material in the gruel. Even the natives always eat some other food with the cakes to provide flavor.

The second method of cooking sago is to sprinkle a large lump of the flour with water and place it on a large pottery shard (or a frying pan) over a fire, leaving it there for a minute or two. The lump is then lifted off, leaving a thin cake adhering to the griddle. This cake is turned, after being sprinkled again on top, and is cooked on the other side. The result is a rubbery pancake, which the natives do not like as well as the sago cakes described above, but which is more palatable to a European, particularly if spread with butter or jam.

e. Locating the Sago Palm

Although the sago palm grows wild in New Guinea and in parts of Melanesia, sago tracts are always owned by nearby natives. Therefore, if it is desired to keep on friendly terms with them, they should be compensated in some way before the trees are taken from their plots. Furthermore, in New Guinea at least, these plots are owned by a patrilineal lineage rather than by an individual. Hence, care should be taken to deal with the whole lineage or a representative thereof, rather than an individual who may claim ownership. A standard price per tree should probably be set, and consistently adhered to. The natives regularly try to take advantage of whites, and a bargaining arrangement would probably lead to trouble. It is reported that a price of about 25 cents for each tree would be adequate compensation, depending on local conditions.

Native culture in New Guinea often demands that a man shall perform one part of the flour processing while a woman does another. If this division is reversed or changed, it is often believed that the sago flour will be inedible. If, therefore, natives are hired to process sago, they should be permitted to choose their own teams.

The pidgin-English term for sago is "sack-sack." Information about the location of sago swamps may be obtained from native pidgin speakers by asking: "Where stop belong sack-sack?" The native may reply: "He stop long hap (pointing)" meaning "It is in that direction." If one wishes to be guided to the place one may say: "You showim me this fellow place belong sack-sack." The pidgin term for guide is "show man." If one wishes to know how much sago there is, one may inquire: "He got plenty fellow sack-sack long this fellow place?" or "How much sack-sack he stop along this fellow place?" If the answer is "lick-lick" it means there is but little. "Plenty fellow" means a lot. "Hot water" is the pidgin-English term for boiled sago gruel, while "fry" or "fryim" is the term for the pancakes.


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