A cold, tropical fusion between creme caramel, a bouncy jello and sticky rice pudding, this decadent yet refreshing Malaysian dessert combines the spongy spring of moulded sago pearls with the richness of coconut milk and the fragrant sweetness of palm sugar (gula melaka). The perfect cool-down after a spicy meal, which just happens to be vegan and gluten-free to boot!
For those who are unfamiliar, sago pearls are tiny dry opaque white balls practically identical to tapioca pearls (see picture below). Both turn translucent and soft when soaked and cooked, and you can use them interchangeably as I do with this recipe. Personally I prefer my sago in its original white form, but you can also find it artificially dyed green, red or multiple other colors.
Do not, however, attempt to substitute gula melaka (pictured below) - not molasses, Thai palm sugar, Indian palm jaggery or even Indonesian gula jawa can quite compare to the glossy darkness and rich toasty flavor of Malaysian (or more specifically, Malaccan) palm sugar. Unfortunately I don't know where it is sold in Los Angeles - I buy mine in bulk in Kuala Lumpur and smuggle it in in my suitcase!
Be sure to make everything at least 4 hours before serving so everything is well-chilled.
Sago Gula Melaka (Sago Pearl Pudding with Palm Sugar and Coconut Milk)
Image by Jake Ahles
- Making the Sago
Raw sago/tapioca pearls
Bring 5 cups of water to boil in a large pot with 1 knotted pandan (screwpine) leaf (for added flavor and fragrance). Gradually dribble in the soaked sago, stirring constantly to avoid clumping.
Boil on low heat for 10 mins until almost translucent. Switch off the heat, cover and let sit in the residual heat a further 10 mins until completely transparent.
The half-cooked, almost translucent sago
Pour the mixture carefully through a fine metal sieve while rinsing under cold running water and stirring (mixture will be gummy). The clear sago grains will be quite hard to spot initially but will emerge once all the liquid drains.
*Washing up the sieve is no fun as all the gloopy excess starch will be stuck to it, but use a good scrubber and lots of soap/cold water and it shouldn't take too long.
The drained sago pearls
Stir in a generous pinch of salt and 1/3 cup sugar.
Pour into slightly wet individual molds/cups/serving bowls (having them damp makes it easier to unmold later on), or if you can't be bothered just chuck it all in a big container for people to scoop themselves. Refrigerate until set.
- Dissolving the Gula Melaka
Gula melaka in its typical cylindrical form
Place a 200g gula melaka block (you will only use a fraction of this for the sago but they tend to come at roughly this size) with 3/4 cup water in a small pot. Bring to a boil, and stir over low heat until dissolved into a dark and glossy syrup. Be careful as hot syrup can cause burns. Let cool, then pour into a jar and refrigerate.
Also, chill some coconut milk.
To serve, unmold the cold puddings and serve with a generous drizzle of gula melaka and coconut milk. Ensure there is plenty of extra so people can top up to their own taste. Dig in!
Image by Jake Ahles