Like a cold, tropical fusion between sticky rice pudding, creme caramel and a bouncy jelly, this quintessential Malaysian favourite combines the spongy spring of moulded sago pearls with the richness of santan (coconut milk) and the fragrant sweetness of palm sugar (gula melaka) to form a decadent yet refreshing dessert, particularly well-suited for cooling you down after a spicy meal.
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 more often than not you can use them interchangeably as I do with this recipe. Occasionally instead of white you'll find pearl sago artificially dyed green, red or multiple other colours- personally I prefer my sago in its original form, but they taste the same so feel free to use those if bright desserts are your kind of thing. Do not, however, attempt to substitute gula melaka (pictured below) unless utterly desperate- not molasses, Thai palm sugar or even Indian palm jaggery can quite compare to the glossy darkness and rich woody flavour of Malaysian (or more specifically, Malaccan) palm sugar.
Be sure to make everything at least 4 hours before serving so they have a chance to chill thoroughly.
Sago Gula Melaka (Sago Pearl Pudding with Palm Sugar and Coconut Milk)
- 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 flavour and fragrance). Gradually dribble in the soaked sago, stirring constantly to avoid clumping. Boil on low heat for 10 mins until almost translucent, then switch off the heat, cover and let sit in the residual heat a further 10 mins until completely transparent.
* If desired, throw in
The half-cooked, almost translucent sago
Top up the pot with cold tap water (to make it less gummy) and pour the mixture carefully through a fine metal sieve. Rinse under cold running water whilst stirring with a spoon-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/hot water and it shouldn't take too long.
The drained sago pearls
Stir in a generous pinch of salt and 1/3 cup sugar, then pour into slightly wet individual moulds/cups/serving bowls (having them damp makes it easier to unmould later on) or a large casserole dish if you prefer to have people scoop their own portion. Refrigerate until set.
- Dissolving the Gula Melaka (the shortcut way)
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 into a bowl. Some recipes say to grate/shave/chop the block first- don't bother as it melts just as easily from whole, and makes no difference whatsoever to the end result!
Microwave on maximum heat at 2-3 min intervals, stirring carefully and breaking the block into smaller chunks with a spoon as it starts to soften. Be very careful as boiling syrup can cause serious burns. Repeat as many times as necessary, stirring in between until it totally dissolves to form a dark and glossy syrup. If desired, sieve to remove any grit (though I never bother as it will settle at the bottom anyway). Refrigerate until completely cold- if your syrup looks too runny, don't fret as it will thicken once chilled.
*If you don't own a microwave, you can dissolve it the traditional way in a pot over low heat on the stove. As usual make sure to stir constantly to prevent burning.
- Making the Santan (skip this step if you're not bothered about adding pandan flavour)
100ml fresh coconut milk (do not substitute with powder)
A pinch of salt
1 pandan (screwpine) leaf, knotted
Once it starts bubbling, remove from heat and let the santan cool. Discard the pandan leaf and refrigerate until cold.
To serve, unmould the puddings and serve with a generous drizzle of both toppings. Ensure there is plenty of extra so people can top up to their own taste. Dig in!