White Rice or Black Sago?

Nov 04, 2011

On the island of Siberut, eating rice is both a status symbol and a sign of destruction of traditional ways.

Often a harvest of sago might be shared by two or three families, who take it in turns to fell the palms, because the taste of the starch is the best in the first four to six weeks after harvest. Every meal time, sago is roasted in sections of freshly-cut bamboo. Each piece of bamboo is about 30 centimetres long and, filled with sago flour, is roasted in the fire for 20-30 minutes. When it is ready, the hot roasted bamboo containers are taken from the fire. It is now easy to break open the bamboo and take out the hot bread-like sago from the inside. Dip it in a condiment of spicy or salty vegetables, meat or fish and you have a substantial meal.

There is also a quicker way to roasting sago, but for this you need plenty of sago leaves to wrap up the wet sago flour and nimble fingers to make sago breadsticks which, when roasted at the back of the fireplace, produce a nice crunchy stick when unwrapped. Locals eat this second variety for breakfast when the sticks are still hot. You need four to eight roasted sticks (called ‘kapurut’ in the local language) to feel full. You can eat them without condiments, and they are a practical way to start your day, alongside a glass of coffee or tea.

Besides being a food source, the sago tree provides other benefits to the community. Sago leaves can be used to make one of the sturdiest thatched roofs in Indonesia They are a useful wrapper for roasting sago breadsticks or for making tapir, as mentioned above. They are also make a resilient wall material. In addition, the strong sago palm bark can be used for flooring and it burns well in the kitchen fireplace.

Parts of sago trees such as the crown, which does not contain starch, will eventually drop to the ground and in combination with other tree litter, will decay and become the perfect host for sago beetles. The grubs of this beetle are an easy catch and a delicious and much sought after protein source. In sum, the sago palm is a valuable multipurpose plant for the people of the Muntei community.

New cash crops

1167 Rolling a sago log back to the village. Photo: Maskota DelfiRecently, the local office of the Ministry of Agriculture has assisted in the introduction of cocoa as a cash crop in the Mentawai archipelago. Many newly planted cocoa fields can be seen around the village. Other areas, where sago used to grow in abundance, have been cleared to make way for further plantings. The new cocoa farmers who have occupied land near Muntei sell their dried cocoa beans to traders in the village or in Muara Siberut.

When people grow cash crops in order to purchase foodstuffs, they run risks if they don’t back up their production with staple crops. When they grow cash crops, communities often are not aware that their stock is subject to the ups and downs of global prices. For instant, a bumper crop in African cocoa can lead to a slump of the price in West Sumatra, while a frost in South America can lead to higher prices.

For now, sago is still valued in the community. In many of their local rituals, the villagers in Muntei still use sago. Even though roasted sago is black, which for some people means tainted or dirty, many locals are still proud of this useful, meaningful and tasty food. However, there’s now a question about how long it will remain a regular item on the menu of future generations. That’s a pity because, for me, roasted sago with a sprinkle of coconut beats any processed breakfast cereal.

Maskota Delfi is an associate lecturer at Andalas University in Padang, West Sumatra and recently submitted her PhD in anthropology at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta.

Republished with permissions from Inside Indonesia.