Article

The Sago Saga

From fighting a famine to a comfort food, here’s what made an entire nation fall in love with the indomitable Sabudana Khichdi

By Madhulika Dash; Picture Courtesy - https://culinaryxpress.com/

There are only two ways about Sabudana Khichdi, one of the classics of Indian culinary ledger, either you love it, or you don’t. Yet, thanks to its phenomenal rise as a vrat ka khana and as a popular comfort food (breakfast or evening snack), it is a dish that many of us have had – willingly or otherwise- at least once or more in our lifetime. And there is a good chance that the variety that has been our first taste is a Sabudana Khichdi, a recipe that was created in the kitchen of the Royal House of Travancore under the kingship of Vishakham Thirunal Rama Varma, the blue-blooded botanist who is said to have got the first Cassava sapling to India.

Story has it that it was on a trip to the neighbouring kingdom that the sago pearls got his attention as another ingredient that is filling and nourishing. When told that a cassava tree can yield upto 800 kilos of tapioca pearl/ flour and chips, Vishakham decided to get a few samplings to test if it could take care of the food issues of the state. The erstwhile kingdom of Travancore was known to have famines and often relied on neighbouring kingdoms for support. Folklore has it that the first few saplings were planted in the palace compound and was used by the king and his family. Once the king was assured of the produce, the rest of the trees were replanted at the edge of his land for people to see with extra security and a diktat that announced severe punishment for those who tried to steal from the tree. The year was 1881.

His plan worked as few months later the king visited the tree spot just to see swathes of the tapioca tree chiselled off. People had started growing the tree but were too sceptic to try it out. This is when the king decided to make it part of most of his meals. The royal cooks were asked to have every dish in their repertoire made with sagu or maricheeni.

A pure form of starch, cooking sagu came with its own set of challenges. Like, says culinary custodian Alka Jena (founder, CulinaryXpress), “its innate tendency to stick to each other easily and turn chewy or mush if undercooked or overcooked.” The first culinary iteration of sagu was a painful process where the pearls were boiled and then washed many times before they could be turned into a porridge. In fact, the sabu dana payasam was the first happily edible dish that was passed from the royal court to the common people after the king decided to serve it during festivities. A characteristic thickener and flavourant, sagu payasam appealed to people – especially the courtiers – who decided to use tapioca dishes to impress their botanist king. For the rest of the populi, it was sagu remained much of an add on that could be had as and when necessary. This adds seasoned chef Pradeep Tejwani (founder, Young Turks), “resulted in sagus entry into the ritualistic corridor. Of course, the acceptance in rituals came for two reasons – one, it was plant based and hence could be offered to the lord; and two, it was available in abundance. There was also a third angle of satiation – sagu, unlike grains is gluten free and yet can be satiating with extra benefits of antioxidants.”

In fact, the religious corridor, adds Jena, “became one of the perfect ruses for sagu to not only gain popularity but also travel widely.” The other reason was of course by the end of 1885, cooks had discovered a way to uncomplicate the cooking of sagu by soaking and washing it. Post which the pearls were good enough to eat on their own or a few limited additions. Like chenna, coconut and jaggery if one craved for sweet, or a spice mix, if savoury was the need.

Unlike Kerala where it was first brought and Tamil Nadu that earned its strips for producing the best quality sagu, the popularity of these cassava pearls in the rest of India was heartening as people saw it as a flour too that could add texture and taste to the dish. It was during this time that many historians believe that the khichdi format, which saw its genesis in the Travancore kitchens finally took a more pilaf kind of consistency and popularity. But its time in the limelight in its country of origin came around the World War 2. With Japan conquering Burma, the source of rice supply to erstwhile Travancore stopped. This forced the population to sought refuge from hunger in cassava pearls – and suddenly sagu, an ingredient that was suspiciously looked upon, became a household staple.

Even in its low nutrient form, says nutritional therapist Sveta Bhassin, “sagu ensured nourishment in form of minerals and nutrients.” The fact that it was a neutral tasting produce added to its charm as it allowed pairing with a number of ingredients including meat. However, the one product that stood out not only for its lightness and palate play was Sabudana Khichdi. Mildly spiced and paired with one or two vegetables, the khichdi proved to be the perfect choice for jaded palate that wanted detox and those that wanted to taste excitement.

Given, adds Bhassin, “it was plant-based, it was easy to digest and could be given from a toddler to a 90-year-old grandmother.” This easiness continues Chef Tejwani, “while contributed to its popularity, making a good sabudana khichdi was akin to mastering the art of dimsum making. The pearl because of its sticky nature can be very moody to both water and heat – a little too much can leave you with a mush, and a too little can leave you with a chewy, bitter unsavoury ball.”

Concurs Jena, who has had her share of lumpy sabudana khichdi – the name sagu earned in Maharatstra under the Saraswat Brahmin who are often credited for perfecting this pilaf like dish – before mastering it. The crucial thing about the dish is that the success of your dish depends on two crucial process: one removal of the starch – and this could take some time, patience and experience; and two, the soaking, says Jena, who finds keeping a one on one measure of water and sagu the best way to get the right kind of fluffy pearls to work with. The next step is cooking, say the culinary expert. Given that Sagu already has gone through the prime process, adds Chef Tejwani, “it needs very little time on heat – just enough to get a translucent colour, which is the benchmark that the pearls are cooking and seasoned well. The result will be a pilaf like khichdi where each pearl can fall like… a pearl.”