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On Wallace and sago cakes

Bill Baker
3 April 2013
Blog team: 
In this guest post, Bill Baker, a palm expert at Kew, reports on a culinary connection between botanists past and present.

Wallace's travels

Alfred Russel Wallace is very much on our minds at Kew at the moment, and not just because the centenary of his death is being marked this year. We’ve recently completed a project to conserve a set of remarkable palm specimens sent to Kew’s first great Victorian Director, William Jackson Hooker, in 1848. They were collected by the young Wallace (with Henry Bates), during his formative South American expedition to the Amazon. They are all the more precious because almost all of Wallace's Amazon collections was destroyed when his ship caught fire on his homeward journey in 1852; only some drawings survived from his 'considerable collection of birds, insects, reptiles and fishes, and a large quantity of miscellaneous articles, consisting of about twenty cases and packages'.

Kew holds rather fewer specimens from Wallace’s more famous Malay Archipelago explorations, but among these is a box of small, starchy, wedge-shaped blocks – sago cakes collected in Ceram, an island in the Moluccas off west New Guinea. Sago is the staple source of carbohydrate for many lowlanders in New Guinea and the Moluccas. It is extracted as a starch flour from the trunk of the sago palm, Metroxylon sagu.

Sago washing in Ceram, wood engraving based on a drawing by Wallace (Fig. 31, The Malay Archipelago, 1869).

Wallace describes the process thus:

'[The pounded pith] is carried away (in baskets made of the sheathing bases of the leaves) to the nearest water, where a washing-machine is put up, which is composed almost entirely of the sago-tree itself. The large sheathing bases of the leaves form the troughs, and the fibrous covering from the leaf-stalks of the young cocoa-nut the strainer. Water is poured on the mass of pith, which is kneaded and pressed against the strainer till the starch is all dissolved and has passed through, when the fibrous refuse is thrown away, and a fresh basketful put in its place. The water charged with sago starch passes on to a trough, with a depression in the centre, where the sediment is deposited... When the trough is nearly full, the mass of starch, which has a slight reddish tinge, is made into cylinders of about thirty pounds' weight, and neatly covered with sago leaves, and in this state is sold as raw sago.'

Wallace’s description remains accurate to this day – sago is still made in this way in New Guinea and the Moluccas.

Sago cakes old...

Wallace’s sago cakes appear to have been made by forcing a sago paste into moulds, and then allowing them to bake or dry into hard blocks. He noted that 'Four cakes are said to serve as a day's food. The price is about 10 shillings per thousand'.

Sago cakes collected by Wallace in the Moluccas (now known as the Maluku Islands) and sent to Kew in 1858. EBC 35908

Wallace was a fan:

'The hot cakes are very nice with butter, and when made with the addition of a little sugar and grated cocoa-nut are quite a delicacy. They are soft, and something like corn-flour cakes, but have a slight characteristic flavor which is lost in the refined sago we use in this country. When not wanted for immediate use, they are dried for several days in the sun, and tied up in bundles of twenty. They will then keep for years; they are very hard, and very rough and dry; but the people are used to them from infancy, and little children may be seen gnawing at them as contentedly as ours with their bread and butter. If dipped in water and then toasted, they become almost as good as when fresh baked; and thus treated, they were my daily substitute for bread with my coffee.'

...and new

In January this year, I followed in Wallace’s footsteps with a team of Kew botanists visiting New Guinea on a plant collecting expedition. Our trip began in Manokwari (or Dorey, as Wallace knew it) opposite the idyllic Mansinam Island, where Wallace made his first landfall in New Guinea and was welcomed by two Germans missionaries (read all about it in Wallace's The Malay Archipelago). From Manokwari, we travelled to Sorong on the western tip of New Guinea, from where we would start our fieldwork. We spent hours in Sorong’s hectic market, provisioning our expedition from colourful stalls piled high with betel nut, fruit and veg, clothes and every conceivable form of hardware.

Sago cakes on sale in Sorong, 2013.

In the middle of all the action, I was distracted by a dingy stall, apparently unique in the wares it was selling – sago cakes, identical to those in the Economic Botany collections at Kew. It was if Wallace himself had only just stopped by to pick up a packet. It was a strange moment, of feeling unexpectedly close to this amazing man and of wonder that such a traditional product was still being manufactured in an identical way more than 150 years later. The cakes on the stall came in two different colours, white and pink, the latter possibly dyed. The pink ones, I was informed, were made of sago, whereas the white were of cassava. Kew’s sago cakes are white – are they then cassava, rather than sago cakes? We cannot answer that yet, but I can tell you that, unlike Wallace, Kew's palm team found that neither makes particularly good eating and that no amount of dunking in sweet, Indonesian tea made them any more palatable! 

Wallacemania in 2013

The towering genius of Charles Darwin has tended to overshadow the work of other great Victorian naturalists such as Alfred Russel Wallace. Thanks to the energy and persuasive powers of George Beccaloni at the Natural History Museum, this is changing. The centenary of Wallace's death sees an extensive programme of events, including a major exhibition at the National Museum of Wales this autumn (to which Kew is lending three of the Amazon palms), lectures at the Natural History Museum, a symposium at the Royal Society, and a small exhibition in Kew's Library (featuring Wallace's sago cakes, to 20 May 2013). For a comprehensive overview, visit the Wallace 100 web site.

- Bill Baker -

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15 May 2014
Thanks for this insight Robin - very interesting indeed.
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15 May 2014
Bill, a comment on the pink colour of the sago cakes you saw and photographed (" The cakes on the stall came in two different colours, white and pink, the latter possibly dyed. The pink ones, I was informed, were made of sago...). I don't think the pink ones were dyed. The sago palms in New Guinea produce either a white or reddish coloured flour. Thus in a 2004 paper on West Papuan scientists list the accessions to their sago collection in terms of their flour colour (see Limbongan, J., Lakuy, H., and Louw, J. 2004. "Program penelitian dan pengkajian sagu berwawasan agribisnis dan ketahanan pangan di Papua". In: Karafir, Y.P., et al. eds. Prosiding Lokakarya Nasional Pendayagunaan Pangan Spesifik Lokal, Jayapura 2-4 Desember 2003. Kerja Sama Dinas Pertanian Tanaman Pangan dan Hortikultura Kabupaten Jayapura dengan Universitas Negeri Papua, pp. 51-57.)
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25 April 2013
Tony - thanks for your comments. The youtube clip is wonderful. It is great to see the manufacturing process in action. I suppose it must be pretty much the same if palm sago is used. The cakes your clip shows are much more like the Wallace cakes here at Kew than those that I saw in Sorong. I wonder if Wallace's were made from cassava rather than palm sago. Very many thanks for your interest in this posting.
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22 April 2013
Thank you for the blog and the remarkable photo of Wallace's cakes! As one of my jobs as Asia-Pacific Director at Fauna & Flora International, I am the tour leader on the 'In the Wake of Wallace' cruise between Ternate and Sorong twice each year and the last part of this YouTube video shows the cooking of these sorts of cakes (these being cassava) My wife and I lived in the sago-rich island of Siberut (Mentawai, West Sumatra) for 2 1/2 years and a description of the process and its economics vs that of rice can be found in Principes 24: 143-146, 1980.
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21 April 2013
Just a quick clarification on Jerry Drawhorn's comment. The sago referred to here is from the sago palm, Metroxylon sagu, and is not toxic so requires no processing to remove toxins. I think Jerry is thinking of cycad sago (from Cycas revoluta) which is toxic unless processed properly. This does not make the history of sago consumption any less remarkable, of course!
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6 April 2013
Hiya, Thanks for this lovely article. BTW there certainly are white sago cakes in Papua New Guinea made with grated coconut and sugar. I've eaten them....delicious...although my own attempts to duplicate these from white raw sago using an oven were disasterous!
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5 April 2013
Sago is a fascinating plant product, and may have been one that the pre-Austronesian peoples developed (along with root starches) in lieu of rice. It must have been an interesting "secret" to know how to process out the toxins to make an edible, and long-usable, product. Imagine the difficulty of discovering the process in a stage-by-stage sequence. It's likely that the immigrating Austronesians had to acquire the knowledge from pre-existing peoples that they observed, or absorbed. Almost all forest orang asli know how to do this, from the Mentawai west of Sumatra, the Melinau and Penan in Borneo, to the Sakai and Semoi in peninsular Malaysia, as well as Papuans. Rice production requires far more work, so it's interesting that sago didn't become the main starch-based food stock. Sago is not usually eaten by sedentary Malays in Sumatra or Java except as a prestige "forest" food...and it's even associated with royalty in some parts of Southern Sumatra (perhaps as a tribute from the forest-resident collectors). As one moves eastward in the Archipelago it becomes increasingly the dominant staple, however (or at least was in Wallace's time).
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