The Sago /Tapioca dilemma.
Tapioca flour comes from the root of the Cassava plant. In some parts of the world the plant is called Mandioca, Manioc or Yucca.
Processing of the root involves the grating and pressing of the Cassava in water, stirring and then left so that the starch may settle. If the starch is sifted while damp and then toasted on a hot pan it clumps into pearls or balls. It is at this stage we start to call the plant tapioca: that is, the flour of Cassava is used as a food while the shifted starch is called tapioca.
Sokolov, in his book, why we eat what we eat, describes Manioc, or Cassava as it is more commonly called, as being depicted on 4000-year-old Peruvian pottery. He describes the root as the tropical world’s cornflakes and potato chips and bread all rolled into one indispensable, all purpose, universal starch.
While it may be nutritionally poor, traditionally it is accompanied by nutritionally rich sauces.
Sago – Metroxylon sagu – comes from the starchy inner trunk of the sago palm, prepared from the inner trunk of palm trees. Sago has the same thickening ability as tapioca.
Like Tapioca pearls, Sago pearls are made by dropping the wet starch onto a hotplate where it dries into small balls.
So why are the two seemly different plants so often mixed up with confusing labelling. Jo Rogers, in his excellent book What Food Is That, says that the confusion started when ‘The Indian Standards Institution established a standard for sago in 1956 stating that sago could be made from either sago or tapioca starch’ p211.
For a long time, it was generally understood that the large pearls were called tapioca pearls and the small pearls were called sago. However, more recently, that distinction has broken down and now there does not seem to be any logic to the label.
So yes, sago and tapioca are two distinct plants, yet both present as bland with a sticky effect on the palate and can be used interchangeably.
Just remember that, like all starches, it is important not to overheat the flour.