Sago Grubs

Sago Palm

Sago Palm

Way back in the 60s, salaried jobs were very scarce as, I guess, it is now. The only difference was now jobs are fewer than qualified job seekers while then jobs were, well, almost non-existent, given the fact Sabah was a new state in a very young nation. The Kadazan-Dusun were mostly farmers by occupation then while our Bajau brethrens were fishermen, and through barter trade, they fostered close kinship that needed no government-driven 1Malaysia exhortation such as these days.

Thus, most of the adults in my kampong were full time farmers planting and harvesting their paddy fields, working their fruit orchards and tending to their farm animals. My mother, bless her, is the stoic, never-had-a-day-of-formal-education, dawn-to-dusk working wife to my father (who was one of the lucky few with a salaried government job and delivered the hard cash evey month). She tapped rubber, worked the paddy fields (ploughed with a buffalo, and harvested each ear of paddy manually with a hand-held blade), kept a fruit orchard, fell and obtained firewood (kerosene stoves came only in the late 60s, electricity in 1975), and tended the buffaloes, pigs, chickens and ducks. In time she will make and sell moonshine (montoku) as well as open up a sundry shop. One might tend to think that my mom was special but it was not; every wife in the kampong did the same back-breaking work.

The farm animals were very important to the families. The buffalo, in addition to being a draught animal, was too valuable to be slaughtered except in time of the demise of a family member or as marriage dowry. On rare occasions when cash is really needed then a buffalo may have to be sold. The chickens were the usual source of protein in addition to fishes caught from the paddy fields or rivers. Even then, that was not very often: there is a euphemism we used when we want to slaughter a chicken – my mom would say, “Potong kayu tokou baino. (Today, we cut wood.)” And the younger siblings will get the drumsticks for dinner, and dad gets to eat the bishop nose and the intestines. We kids were pretty brainwashed about the chicken arse (“You don’t eat that otherwise you become frisky as the rooster”). Even today, all of us grownups do not dare to eat these chicken parts.

Pigs were the in-betweens, slaughtered for minor feasts as well as sold for cash at the start of every school year. Every family in my village had a pig sty and had maybe about 15-20 animals. Mind you, these were not the modern hogs we rear in ultra modern pig factories nowadays. These kampong ones looked like they are close cousins of the Borneo bearded wild pigs. These porcine runts would eat and eat and never seem to grow big. Looking back, I guess that was a not big surprise since they were fed a diet of leftover meals, used rice wine rice, chopped wild vegetables, and milled rice husks cooked in a cut-off oil drum. The main bulk was however grated sago (from the Sago Palm, Metroxylon sagu). We called sago Rumbia though.

The Rumbia was plentiful in the village since they grew in acidic peat swamps that dot the large expanse of paddy fields. This palm is very useful. The pith from the stem is used to produce sago flour (It produces four times more starch than rice, at 100–200 kilograms per palm), the leaves to make thatched roofs (like this) for dwelling homes (the house that I was born in.), and the frond petioles staked together to make the walls of the house.

The sago palm is not an easy tree to axe down but my mother made it look easy. A mature palm towers close to 50 feet and the trunk can be more than 3 feet in diameter protected by a hard bark-rind. The sago trunk has to be split open, the rind taken off, and the pith divided into quarters, and then grated. Once the major part of the tree is used, the last few feet towards the fronds are left behind. The exposed pith at the end is closed with a zinc sheet to prevent buffaloes from gnawing and eating it. (Buffaloes love to eat sago pith and they will chase you round and round with frothing mouths if you show them a sago piece to tempt them). The leftover tree will be left for 3-4 weeks and this is the time when we wait eagerly for sago grubs which is the palm weevil caterpillar.



The weevils will lay eggs and the hatched larvae will soon burrow tunnels into the pith and turn to the familiar grubs we call butod. Mind you, leave it took late to come back and open up the rumbia and you will find only few of the laggards as butod, the others having gone to become pupae and then adult weevils. On the other hand, exploit the rotten sago too early and you get only small grubs – not exactly the sumptuous dish on the dinner table. My mom is the expert however in determining the right timing to maximize the highest number of the biggest grubs. She says it is in the type of squishy noises you hear as you put your ear to the tree that these grubs make as they eat their way to pupa nirvana.

This is how exactly you cook them (youTube). So, how does it taste? Well, the grubs had the consistency of well-marinated squid, and the taste of sweetened cheese. As usual, the youngest children will have the honor of the choicest bits which are the pupae – crunchy and as tasty as well-fried shrimps.

Some of you might be horrified with such choice of cuisine but remember, these grubs are cleaner (since they never exit their starchy home tunnels) than the pigs and chickens that sleep and eat in their own filth (and muck around the village open pit latrines). Also, we were the generation then that the WHO–UNICEF deems sufficiently undernourished or suffering from malnutrition so much so that we were distributed wheat and hardened powdered milk (which we receive sometimes after Sunday Mass).

So thanks to UNICEF and butod diet, I get to be almost 6 feet tall in my boots today.

More butod pictures of butod at Pejalai’s blog.

[Postscript]
There are seven of us siblings. Mother miscarriaged our eight sibling while looking for river snails to put food on the table that evening.

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