An awesome building material and much more!

by Herman, 2009

 The Flying Dusun Blog!

When I arrived here in Sabah some 15 years back the place was different. Wilder is certainly a term that comes to mind. I remember travelling from Donggongon to my friends’ house in Ma’ang, where I still stay now: right after Donggongon there were those vast patches of sago palms and I was in awe of those massive, un-orderly groves and swampy patches. I imagined crocodiles and monkeys, snakes and flying foxes to inhabit those forbidding places at the fringes of rice fields. But what to me was untamed, wild beauty and adventure was ‘under-developed’ and ‘under-utilised’ land to others – and to some probably simply ‘eye sores…’ It was not long before the last sago groves close to Donggongon disappeared, and at the current rate of so-called land-reclamation it won’t be long before sago palms, once so common and important here, will be totally gone.

the basket in the middle is a 'basung' made from sago fronds

Not so long ago, I’d say it is not even a generation since, sago palms, or rumbia in the Kadazan and various Dusun languages, were vital for the locals. When I arrived here and admired the untamed growth of sago groves I did not know what I know now. I only saw the “savage beauty” of Borneo. Now that I know how many uses sago palms have I regret doubly that those groves disappear. Or what I regret perhaps more is the disappearance of any respect for those palms and the environment they grow in. I do agree that certain places need to expand, and roads must be upgraded, but if there was some respect for nature and her creations development should also mean protection. But I don’t want to go ranting about environmental protection here, this is an article about sago palms and what I have learned about them over the past few years. Everything is truly astonishing; a quick botanical description first:

Sago - Biology

The sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, is found in tropical lowland forests and freshwater swamps across Southeast Asia and New Guinea, where it is the primary source of sago flour. It tolerates a wide variety of soils and may reach 30 meters in height. The palm genus Metroxylon contains several species, many of which are extensively used by local populations for a wide variety of application.

Sago palms grow very quickly, up to 1.5 m of vertical stem growth per year. The stems are thick and either are self-supporting or have a moderate climbing habit. The leaves are pinnate, not palmate. The palms only reproduce once – after flowering – and then die off. Harvesting is done before they flower, at the age of 7 to 15 years, when the stems are full of starch stored for use for reproduction.

True sago palms must not be confused with an ornamental plant often called “Sago Palm”, or “King Sago Palm” (Cycad sago), which is actually a slow growing, and poisonous, cycad.

Cycads are gymnosperms from the Cycadaceae family; palms are angiosperms (flowering plants) from the Arecaceae. The two taxa are completely unrelated. It is interesting to know though that cycads are a type of living fossils, having survived since at least the early Permian period.

The misnomer sago palm for cycads probably stems from the fact that some people of the Pacific and Indian Oceans also process starch known as ‘sago’ from cycads. There are large biological and dietary differences between the two types of sago and unlike Metroxylon palms cycads are highly poisonous: most parts of the plant contain the neurotoxins cycasin and β-Methylamino-L-alanine (BMAA); or more understandably: that’s something really, really not good for our health! Before any part of the plant can be eaten the toxins must be removed through extended processing.

Sago Palm Uses in Borneo

Sago Flour / Sago Starch

The superficially most obvious use for sago palms is its starch, which when processed is sold in the form of ‘pearls’. It closely resembles pearl tapioca. Both are typically small, about 2 mm in diameter dry balls. If very pure both are white, but more frequently they are coloured naturally a light grey, brown or even black. Artificially coloured sago pearls in pink, yellow and green can be found in Indian grocery stores. Both, tapioca and sago pearls are widely used in South Asian cuisine, in a variety of dishes, and around the world, usually in puddings and desserts.

Before the advent of industrial processing of sago starch the locals have already had a long tradition of ‘sago pudding,’ which is made from sago flour laboriously extracted from the starch found in the sago palm pith. Sago pudding goes under many different names and it is considered amongst virtually all peoples of Borneo one of the most traditional dishes. Most probably it was the staple food of the early inhabitants of Borneo before rice and agriculture were introduced. The Penan of Sarawak and Kalimantan, who do not cultivate rice, still rely on sago as their primary staple. Sago flour is nearly pure carbohydrate and has very little protein, vitamins, or minerals, which are supplied by game and fish that accompany it.

To process sago flour the sago palm has to be cut down, which is done before it flowers. That is when the starch content is at its highest concentration. The trunk is split length wise and its pith is crumbled up – either by pounding, grating, crushing or kneading – and then washed and soaked in water to release the starch. The raw starch suspension is collected in a trough, trench or other suitable container for setting. Ideally the water can seep away, or it is slowly drained manually. The raw starch ‘cake’ thus obtained is dried and further processed for storage. Sago flour, when made properly, can be stored for many months.

In Sabah the sago flour is mixed with hot water and eaten as a pudding – sometimes you can find on the tamu sago ‘noodles’, which are used like their ‘modern equivalent’, sago pearls, in soups, puddings and desserts. The Kadazan call their sago pudding natok; in Penan it is called na’oh; the Murut, Kedayan, Bisaya and Brunei call it ambuyat. In Melanau it is called linut.

The Melanau people of Mukah in Sarawak have developed a whole sago industry and besides sago pearls they also offer sago cookies and chips in a variety of local flavours. You can find those truly excellent snacks, called Tebaloi/Tabuloi, in any grocery store, supermarket and even at the airports through Sarawak. In Sabah such entrepreneurship sadly lacks – could it be because sago here is considered something of a poor man’s dish and not worth of any development? And yet there is much more to come on sago palms:

Sago Grubs

Since we talk about food one must mention sago grubs – or butod in Kadazan and siat / si’et in Melanau. When a sago tree is cut Sago Palm weevils lay eggs in the rotting pith of the trunk that develop into nice, fat, wriggly grubs the size of a man’s small finger. And while sago pudding is virtually devoid of proteins, sago grubs are virtually pure protein bombs and thus the ideal accompaniment... they can be eaten raw (and alive, which I kind of don’t really like), in soups or, best of all, grilled…!

Other Uses


making 'atap' - roof thatch

When I introduce sago palms to travellers they invariably think of sago and tapioca pearls in the first place – I have described the tedious and time consuming process that the production of sago starch requires. Here people may think of ‘atap’ first when hearing sago palm – ‘atap’ is roof thatch. Before the arrival of corrugated iron virtually all houses were covered in palm thatch, and sago palms, together with nipah palms (Nypa fruticans) were the preferred choice. Making atap is time consuming but the result lasts for up to five years and keeps the house cool, unlike zinc roofing which has the tendency of transforming any room under it into an oven. There are even atap wall partitions. It is rare nowadays to find a house entirely thatched in atap, but rural people may use it for their kitchens, and for those parts of the house where they work during the day, like the veranda, since it is much cooler than zinc. ‘Atap’ is fairly common in Kota Kinabalu international resorts and other attractions; they use it to give gazebos in their landscaped gardens that exotic flavour!


house and shelter atap-thatched

'kumbar' ready for use

However, there are many more uses for this palm tree than roofing: leaves are used for roofing and wall elements, and also to wrap foods; the spathe, or frond (kumbar in Dusun languages) is used, whole, to make ‘basung’ – indigenous carrier baskets and other waterproof or watertight recipients – and thin strips of the frond can be used to make mats, baskets and trays; the long stem of the leaf (kumbar) is used for making walls and partitions while the white pith of kumbar is a traditional stopper or cork for bottles; the tough outer layer of the trunk, or bark, can be used for durable flooring. Furthermore, the area where sago grows is usually swampy, on the fringes of rice fields, where a multitude of vegetables like ‘lomiding’ ferns grow and where the locals used to fish and catch crabs, and other animals.


as good as a prefabricated kit!

the bamboo pegs are home-made...

Artefacts made from the various parts of the palm are now rarely found. However, there are certain areas in Sabah where people still rely very much on what is naturally available, and even I did recently when I made a partition for my kitchen – I used kumbar, the long stems of sago leaves. It is a material that is freely available, light, sturdy, durable and even insulating though the latter is not that important in our climate… it is simply an awesome building material that comes ‘prefabricated’ in regular elements that can be stacked kit-like to form an aesthetically pleasing, yet secure wall or partition. The only things you need are some bamboo pegs – which I made myself – a hand-saw and a hammer, and a parang or machete. I wonder why this material is not used more. I enjoyed making the wall as much as I enjoy looking at it now, and it has only cost me some sweat… and it is admired by all my local friends though it is absolutely not modern. Sometimes I don’t understand people… however it be, sago’s past importance is celebrated in Sabah’s Pesta Rumbia every year. It looks like sago is making after all some sort of a come-back. Maybe not as a building material, but as a food, just like in Sarawak!


the back of my kitchen - natural, sturdy & durable, yet biodegradable!


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