Home   Blog   Classes   Trips   More   back

Posts Tagged ‘dessert’

Gingko Nuts

Kasma Loha-unchit, Wednesday, October 9th, 2013

My Mother and Gingko Nuts

Today is the first anniversary of my mother’s passing. I spent the morning cracking and peeling gingko nuts – a nourishing, medicinal food that mother absolutely loved. During the last several years of her life, she was frail and unable to walk or stand for very long. So every time I went home from across the ocean to visit her, I would bring a big bag of gingko nuts and we would spend precious hours together sitting by the dining table after breakfast cracking and peeling them.

(Click images to see larger version.)

Cracking Gingko Nuts

Cracking gingko nuts

Using a stone pestle, I would gently tap the ridge of the pistachio-sized nuts to crack them and mother would peel off the shell and as much of the paper-thin membrane encasing the kernels as she could. The shelled kernels were then soaked in water to loosen the parts of the membrane that tightly hugged the soft, edible flesh. After the nuts were all cleaned, they were boiled in water sweetened with a little bit of raw sugar or wild honey and that would become her late afternoon snack or a light dessert after a light evening meal. Simply prepared, the nuts retained their delicious flavor and delightful, soft-but-chewy texture. There would be plenty left for many more servings over the course of my visit. Mother always looked forward to her bowl of gingko nuts – they gave her tremendous satisfaction and comfort, while at the same time, nourish her in the evening of her years.

Gingko Nuts

Gingko nut close-up

Cracking and peeling gingko nuts took time, but what better way to spend countless, precious hours with my elderly mother that I would always treasure. We talked and laughed and told stories, but most of the time, we were just silent, cherishing every moment of just being with one another. This activity was the last food prep and cooking activity I shared with my mother, and whenever I crack and peel gingko nuts, I will always remember the many timeless mornings spent with her preparing one of nature’s great healing foods – as well as all the times in my life that I had spent with her preparing nourishing foods for the family and, in the process, learning from her the secrets of cooking, which I now share with my cooking students.

Like my mother, I love both the taste and the texture of fresh gingko nuts. When cooked right, they are soft and chewy, somewhat remiscent of sticky rice. Although the nut has a slightly bitter taste, to her and me and everyone else who loves gingko nuts, it is not unpleasant and is a reminder of its medicinal properties.

Gingko Nuts

Gingko nuts soaking in water

Technically speaking, gingko nuts are not really nuts but the seeds of the gingko tree (Gingko biloba, commonly known as the maidenhair tree). They bear no resemblance whatsover to other nuts in texture, flavor or nutrition. They taste more like some kind of legume or vegetable. Although many Asian markets in the Bay Area carry refrigerated, vacuum-sealed bags of peeled and cooked gingko nuts, these taste awful and should be avoided. Buy only the whole, unshelled gingko nuts from dried goods stores in Chinatown. They look a lot like pistachio nuts in size, color and form, but are pointy at one end. In fact, during her first trip to the United States some forty years ago, mother almost mistook pistachios for gingko nuts. She was very excited to see what she thought were cracked gingko nuts in a supermarket, until she took a closer look. Of course, she quickly learned to love pistachios as well.

Cooked Gingko Nuts

Cooked gingko nuts

I prefer to buy gingko nuts from bulk bins, rather than already bagged in net bags in some Asian grocery stores. That way I can see the individual nuts more clearly and select ones that are large and white and not broken, discolored, moldy or mildewy on the outside of the shell. When cracked and shelled, the kernels inside should be plump and cream-colored; after they’re cooked, they turn a lovely bright yellow color with a radiant sheen. It takes a little work to crack and peel gingko nuts, but it’s well worth the effort and, to those who like to cook and eat healthy foods, this prep work can be a therapeutic activity.

Gingko nuts were introduced into Thailand by the Chinese and all gingko nuts sold in the country are imported from China. Thailand is too hot and tropical a country to grow the temperate-climate gingko tree. The city of Bangkok, which had its beginnings as a Chinese trading post a few hundred years ago, is said to have the largest Chinese population of any city outside a Chinese country (i.e., China, Taiwan, Singapore). In the Old Market (Talad Kao) of Bangkok’s Chinatown, there are many stores selling gingko nuts, both whole unshelled and peeled and cooked. (See picture, below right.) They are also available in many of the city’s shopping centers and marketplaces which have stores or stalls that carry Chinese goods. Chinese restaurants around the city feature dishes made with gingko nuts, including stews, soups, stir-fries and desserts. Often, gingko nuts are cooked in a rice congee along with chestnuts, lotus seeds, red dates and medicinal roots, bark and herbs. They are not only delicious but very nutritious.

Gingko Nut Dessert

Gingko nut dessert - Oni Pae Guay

Gingko nuts have made their way into a few Thai sweet snacks and desserts, which are adapted from the Chinese. One such dessert, called Oni Pae Guay (using the same Chinese name of a common Chinese dessert), is often on the dessert menu of many large Thai restaurants. It takes the form of a creamy, smooth and sweet, mashed taro paste (but less sweet than the Chinese version), topped with slices of cooked Chinese red dates and a few gingko nuts, with the added Thai touch of a salty-sweet coconut cream sauce. Another sweet snack is a soupy pudding of job’s tears (another healing food native to most of East and Southeast Asia – a grain reminescent of barley and often called “pearl barley”), accented with gingko nuts and strips of slivered young coconut meat, cooked in young coconut juice flavored with pandan leaves (a medicinal herb in traditional Thai herbal medicine prevalently used to flavor and color many Thai desserts). This fusion Thai-Chinese dish is both a delicious and healthy snack/dessert. In tribute to my mother and her love of gingko nuts, I introduced this dessert just a little over a week ago in my new Advanced I evening cooking series to commemorate her passing a year ago this month.

Gingko Nuts

Gingko nuts in Bangkok's Chinatown

Gingko nuts are a medicinal food in much of the Orient. They are an excellent antioxidant, rich in vitamins, micronutrients and amino acis, and have become known for their anti-aging properties. Other benefits include improving circulation to the coronary artery and the brain, sharpening of the memory and aiding in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. In traditional Chinese medicine, gingko nuts have been used for thousands of years to strengthen the lung and kidney meridians. They are used as a “yang” kidney tonic to increase energy, reduce the frequency of night-time urination and incontinence, relieve bladder irritations, and reduce excess mucus in the urinary tract and excess vaginal discharge. A tea made from boiling the nuts is used to treat lung weakness and congestion, including coughing with an excess of phlegm, wheezing, and asthma. They are also used to treat hearing loss, dermatological disorders and psoriasis. I particularly like this passage in an article on Chinese healing herbs: “Long-term consumption helps nourish yin, maintain youth, fight aging, expand capillaries, improve metabolism, promote ruddy and healthy look, provide extra energy and grant longer and healthier lives.” But there is a caveat: don’t eat the kernels raw and don’t eat too many in one sitting (7 for children and 15 to 20 for adults) as they can have a toxic side effect for some people.

Now, whenever I peel gingko nuts, I will always remember my mother, who taught me how to cook, who taught me how food is medicine and the first line of defense against illnesses, and who introduced to me a host of exotic ingredients that I still use today and pass on to my cooking students. Her legacy lives on.


Written by Kasma Loha-unchit on October 9, 2013

Thong Lo Mangos (and Sticky Rice)

Michael Babcock, Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Another great food treat that you can find at Thong Lo (Sukhumvit Soi 55) is White Sticky Rice with Mangoes.

Thong Lo Fruit Store

Look for the mangos!

My last blog on March 18 was on Thong Lo Duck Noodles; here’s one more blog on a Thong Lo stop. Thong Lo (pronounced “Tawng Law”) has its own skytrain stop. Kasma puts her small-group tours at a hotel there close to the mouth of the Soi. I’ve also written on its street food in One Soi’s Street Food Scene. I’ve enjoyed the chance to get to know one particular Thai neighborhood a bit better. Although Thong Lo is considered an upscale area, there are plenty of store fronts and street vendors that depend on un-trendy people (such as myself) to keep them in business.

Mangoes

Luscious mangoes!

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

One very strong candidate for “Favorite Thai Dish of All Time” would have to be Coconut-Flavored Sticky Rice with MangoesKao Niow Ma-muang. When Kasma teaches it in her cooking classes (week 3 of the beginning series) it is one dish that seldom has any leftovers!

There’s a store on Thong Lo that does a very good version that you can purchase to go. It’s “Ma Varee Fruits Store” and is the first fruit store you come to as you walk from the skytrain down Thong Lo (on the same side as the sky train exits). You’ll recognize it by the display of mangoes in front.

Sticky Rice and Mango

Sticky Rice and Mango, to go

A quick word on Thai mangoes. They are heavenly. Mind you, I’ve never been in Thailand during the actual mango season when they are at their peak. Nevertheless, the ones I have eaten bear no resemblance to anything we get in the San Francisco Bay Area. My favorites are the yellow ones; even off-season when you get a good one, it melts in your mouth with sweetness – an “ah ha!” taste experience. Add the sticky rice, mixed with delicious, rich (fresh) coconut milk, slightly sweetened, and you have ambrosia.


Written by Michael Babcock, April 2010

Kabocha Squash

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, November 5th, 2009

Golden Winter Squash Pairs with Coconut Milk to Make Colorful Sweet Treats

Numerous new varieties of colorful winter squashes are now available in the fall,  but I still favor the Japanese kabocha (which means “little pumpkin”) for my cooking. It has a sweet and nutty flavor, smooth and creamy texture, low water content that does not dilute flavorings in my dishes and none of the stringiness characteristic of many kinds of western pumpkins. Because of these attributes, many of my cooking students have found it to be exquisite for making pumpkin pies for Thanksgiving.

Kabocha Squash

Kabocha Squash

With kabocha, I don’t have to wait until fall to make my favorite pumpkin dishes. It is available most of the year round, from all kinds of markets, including many chain supermarkets. This is because it is a dry squash that grows easily and stores extremely well, sometimes for up to six months in a cool, well-ventilated room.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Cut Open Kabocha Squash

Cut Open Kabocha Squash

Smaller, flatter and more disc-shaped than the common pumpkin carved at Halloween, kabocha squashes average 2-5 pounds in size. They are eaten by Asians at various stages of maturity. Less-mature, deep green ones with light yellow flesh are cooked as vegetables in stir-fried dishes, curries and vegetable soups.(See Kasma’s recipe for Golden Pumpkin Coconut Soup.) As they ripen, the forest-green peel turns a paler grayish green, tinged with splotches of yellow and gold. Inside, the flesh becomes a brilliant shade of orange-gold, much more concentrated with flavor and natural sweetness. At this stage, these golden squashes make a perfect base for all kinds of irresistible and colorful desserts.

Sliced Kabocha Squash

Sliced Kabocha Squash

I am particularly fond of two sweet treats my mother frequently made while I was growing up in Southeast Asia. One recipe (Sweet Soup of Kabocha in Coconut Milk) is given below and the other Sangkaya is found on our recipe page. They are easy to make and delicious, combining the goodness of the “little pumpkins” with the rich flavors of coconut milk. Whenever I come across a beautiful ripe kabocha at the market, I couldn’t resist taking it home to turn into these tasty treats for friends and cooking students. They are delightful in cleaning the palate following a spicy meal.

Select a fully-ripened kabocha with good weight for its size – one splashed with golden hues on a grayish green exterior. But if you are not able to find a ripe one, substitute with any ripe golden winter squash, such as the tasty sweet dumpling, delicalata, kalabasa or buttercup.

See our website for more Thai recipes and more Thai ingredients. You might also enjoy our post on Thai (Sweet) SnacksKanom Wahn.


This recipe is also available on our website as Sweet Soup of Kabocha in Coconut Milk.

Sweet Soup of Kabocha in Coconut Milk Recipe (Gkaeng Buad Fak Tong)

Ingredients

Asian Pumpkin in Coconut Cream

Kabocha in Coconut Milk

  • 3 cups cut ripe kabocha squash
  • 2 cups or one can of unsweetened coconut milk (preferably Mae Ploy brand)
  • 2 Tbs. palm or coconut sugar (or substitute with brown sugar)
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 – 1/2 tsp. sea salt

Cut the kabocha squash in half, scoop out the seeds and peel off the greenish skin. Cut into strips about 2 inches long, 1/2 inch wide and 1/4 inch thick.

In a saucepan, heat the coconut milk with the two kinds of sugar and salt until well blended. (Salt brings out a rich, caramel flavor from coconut milk.) Bring to a boil, add the squash pieces and cook over low to medium heat until tender (about 7-10 minutes). Serve warm for best flavor.

Serves 6 to 8.


Another (sweet) recipe with coconut milk is Tapioca Black Bean Pudding.

Thai (Sweet) Snacks – Khanom Wan

Michael Babcock, Sunday, October 25th, 2009

One of the joys of Thailand is the wide variety of snacks, or, in Thai, khanom, available in all the markets. A recent blog entry by Kasma that included a recipe for a very tasty Thai pudding, Tapioca Black Bean Pudding, got me thinking about Thai khanom. In the title above I’ve used khanom wan, wan being the word for “sweet,” since I’ll focus on sweet snacks here and there are savory snacks as well). (Picture is from Kasma’s class.)

Tapioca black bean pudding

Tapioca Black Bean Pudding

Kasma tells me that Thai people traditionally didn’t eat sweets for desserts; if they had a dessert at all, it was fruit of some variety. Something sweet might be eaten an hour or so after eating or it might be eaten at any time during the day. This is not so different from how the Thai people treat food in general; for instance, they don’t really have any specific breakfast foods. Breakfast is considered just another meal and anything that is eaten at any other time of the day will also be eaten for breakfast.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Sticky rice treats in jackfruit

Sticky rice treats in jackfruit

Thai markets are full of khanom – I’m actually fairly amazed by the variety of Thai desserts and snacks. On our market walks we’re always seeing something that I swear I’ve never seen before. They are part of what I think of as a “grazing culture” – a Thai will eat any time of the day or night. Sometimes these new snacks don’t last – the sticky rice treats in jack fruit pictured here appeared one year at Aw Taw Kaw Market in Bangkok but the next year they were not there. Too bad, they were tasty!

The Tapoica Black Bean Pudding is representative of Thai sweets in many ways. One, it includes a salty component. Two, it is coconut based. Three, it contains ingredients that are healthy for you (black beans, coconut milk).

Making Grilled Coconut Hotcakes

Making Grilled Coconut Hotcakes

Thai sweets and snacks are seldom just sweet and, as a rule, are less sweet than American Desserts. They often have a salty component to play off the sweet taste. Kasma was very amused a few years back when the New York Times ran an article about the “new” way of making desserts that included a salty component. She wrote a letter and pointed out that in Thailand and all over Asia they’ve combined sweet and salty  for hundreds of years.

A great many Thai khanom are coconut based. Although coconut can be used in any form, such as shredded meat as used in Khanom Paeng Jee Grilled Coconut Cakes – more khanom use coconut milk. The Tapioca Black Pudding is one example and Kasma’s dessert recipes include three all time favorites: Coconut Flavored Sticky Rice with Mango (Kao Niow Mamuang), Grilled Coconut-Rice Hotcakes (Khanom Krok), and Coconut Egg Custard (Sangkaya). (The picture above of a vendor making Khanom Krok was taken at Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thong Lo) in Bangkok.)

Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups

Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups

Another characteristic of Thai khanom wan is the presence of healthy ingredients – coconut milk, taro, squash, corn, to name just a few. Coconut milk is actually a very healthy food indeed, despite the efforts of the American oil industry to convince us otherwise. I’ve written an article The Truth About Coconut Oil and perhaps the best article on the subject is Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary Enig, Ph.D. We’ve also got a page with numerous links to information about coconut oil.

The quick story is that coconut oil does not clog your arteries or contribute to heart disease and it is full of healthy fats, such as Lauric Acid and Caprylic Acid, which have a beneficial effect in the body by helping you fight off bacteria, viruses, parasites and fungus. It is what is called a “functional food,” defined thus: “a functional food provides a health benefit over and beyond the basic nutrients.” (See Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century by Mary Enig).

Ruam Mitr without the ice

Ruam Mitr without the ice

One of my very favorite Thai snacks is a coconut-milk based snack called ruam mitr. Kasma, in her classes, calls it “Iced Sweet Coconut Soup with a Mix of Various Tidbits.” It’s basically a sweet coconut soup to which up to a dozen or so various tidbits such as jackfruit, green noodles, young coconut meat, water chestnut  and corn have been added. The picture above, before the ice is added, gives an idea of the variety of ingredients. It is topped with shaved ice and on a warm day is a delightful combination of coolness, taste and textures. It is very cooling and refreshing. (Picture is from Kasma’s class.)

Asian Pumpkin in Coconut Cream

Asian Pumpkin in Coconut Cream

There are numerous examples of khanom that contain something served in a “coconut soup,” such as Taro Cubes in Coconut Milk, Asian Pumpkin Simmered in Pandan-Leaf-Scented Sweet Coconut Cream Sauce (Gkaeng Buad Fak Tong) (picture from Kasma’s class), and the “Ordained Bananas” – Bananas Simmered in Jasmine-Scented Coconut Milk (Gkluey Buad Chi). (So-called, because nuns, in Thailand, wear white: the bananas have been “ordained”  in the white coconut milk.)

Coconut milk is also used in other desserts, such as Khanom Tuay – Steamed Coconut-Rice Cakes in Small Dishes and Sticky Rice and Corn Pudding (Kao Niow Bpiak Kao Pohd). And of course the khanom krok mentioned above.

Steamed Banana Cakes

Steamed Banana Cakes

Bananas are another common and well-loved ingredient. Of course, in Thailand there are many different varieties of bananas, all of which make the kind we find in United States supermarkets taste very bland indeed. In addition to Ordained Bananas, here are just a few banana-based desserts taken from Kasma’s class menus:

  • Grilled Plantain Bananas, Glazed with Sweet & Savory Coconut Cream Sauce,
  • Fried Bananas (Gkluay Tawd)
  • Stewed Bananas Topped with Coconut Cream Sauce (Gkluay Kai Cheum)
  • Steamed or Grilled Banana Leaf-Wrapped Sticky Rice Stuffed with Banana and Black Beans (Kao Dtom Pad)
  • Southern Thai Muslim Banana-Ginger Griddle Cakes (Gkalabpaeng)
  • Steamed Banana Cake Wrapped in Banana Leaf Packages or in Banana Leaf Cups (Kao Dtom Pad) (picture from Kasma’s class)
Sticky Rice Balls in Ginger Broth

Sticky Rice Balls in Ginger Broth

Other snacks have more of a Chinese influence – indeed, they are found on Chinese menus all over the world as well as in restaurants and markets in Thailand:

  • Sticky Rice Balls Stuffed with Black Sesame Paste in Warm Sweet Ginger Broth (Bua Loy Nahm King) (picture from the Krua Andaman in Nakhon Si Thammarat)
  • Sweet Potatoes in Ginger Broth (Man Dtom Nahm King)
  • Young Coconut Agar Jelly (Woon Maprao Awn)

Cassava, or yucca, is another ingredient often seen, as in these snacks:

  • Steamed Cassava Strips Rolled in Shredded Coconut (Khanom Man)
  • Caramelized Stewed Cassava (Yucca) in Syrup, Topped with Coconut Cream Sauce (Man Cheuam)
  • Cassava Custard Topped with Coconut Cream (Dtakoh Man Sambpalang)
Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells

Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells

Here are just a few other snacks you may come across:

  • Crispy Peppery Sweet Glazed Shells (Krawng Kraeng Gkrawb) (picture from Kasma’s class)
  • Chewy Sticky Rice Balls Stuffed with Smoked Sweet Shredded Coconut (Khanom Dtom Kao)
  • Southern Thai-Style Sweet Roti (Muslim Fried Bread) sprinkled with sugar and condensed milk and/or stuffed with sliced banana). Although these originated in the south, you’ll find roti vendors all over Thailand.
  • Steamed Pumpkin Cakes in Banana Leaf Cups (Khanom Faktong)
Khanom Buang Thai

Khanom Buang Thai

Another type of sweet you may encounter has a bright orange appearance, the color coming from egg yolks. One example of this is Khanom Buang Thai, a Thai crepe whose filling includes meringue and sweetened egg yolks. These particuler snacks can be traced to the influence of Marie Guimar, the half-Japanese, half-Portuguese wife of a Greek minister (Constantine Phaulkon) to the Siamese royal court in the 17th century. Marie worked her way to the position of head of the royal kitchen and introduced the use of eggs in making desserts and other sweets.

Bakery cakes in Nakhon Panom

Bakery cakes in Nakhon Panom

One trend that I’ve noticed over the years is an increase in western-style desserts in Thailand. It is fairly common to see bakeries that have decorated cakes and there’s one restaurant chain (S & P) that is famous for their cakes. In markets and malls you’ll find cookies, cakes and donuts.

And there are the exceptions to Thai snacks being less sweet than western desserts. On one memorable evening, a Thai friend took us to a trendy khanom shop that served nothing but extremely sweet, multi-colored syrups on white, puffy bread. I suppose the western-style bread makes this a fusion dessert. The place was absolutely packed.

Cassava cakes from Sontepheap Market

Cassava cakes from Sontepheap Market

In the United States, I’ve not seen much of a variety of Thai snacks at Thai restaurants: you’re lucky if they have sticky rice or fried bananas. Where I’ve seen a greater variety of snacks, somewhat more representative of what you find in Thailand, are at some of the Asian markets we frequent, such as Khanh Phong on 9th Street in Oakland or (especially) Sontepheap market on International Boulevard an 14th Street in Oakland. You’ll find the snacks by the check-out counters. If you’re not in the Bay Area, make a trip to some of the Southeast Asian markets in your area. (See Shopping at Asian Markets (for Thai Ingredients).

Chiang Mai Snack Vendor

Chiang Mai Snack Vendor

We’ll finish with this picture of a young woman vendor outside of Worarat Market in Chiang Mai. She’s making Grilled Coconut Cakes (Khanom Paeng Jee), Fried Yam Balls and Fried Bananas (Gluay Tawd).


If you want to eat Thai khanom your best bet is to travel to Thailand and be adventurous in the markets. If you want to learn to make khanom you can do so in Kasma’s classes.


Written by Michael Babcock, October 2009.

Tapioca – Sagu (or Sakoo)

Kasma Loha-unchit, Thursday, October 15th, 2009

Warm Tapioca Puddings Give Comfort on Cold Evenings

The tapioca pudding in Thailand is quite different from what westerner’s are used to.

Tapioca pearls

Tapioca pearls

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.

Uncooked tapioca pearls

Uncooked tapioca pearls

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

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.

Tapioca pearls cooking

Tapioca pearls cooking

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.

Tapioca with water chestnuts

Tapioca with water chestnuts

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.

Tapioca black bean pudding

Tapioca black bean pudding

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.

See our website for more  Thai recipes and more Thai ingredients.


This recipe is also available on our website as Tapioca Black Bean Pudding.

Tapioca Black Bean Pudding Recipe (Sakoo Tua Dtam)

Ingredients

Tapioca black bean pudding

Tapioca black bean pudding

  • 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.

Notes:

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.