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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

See Where We Go with Sago: a Journey to Deconstruct Colonial Foodways through Ingredients

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


In a previous blog post, I discussed the tremendous potential that the foodways program has in creating a diverse, inclusive museum. Following that stream of thought, I’d like to expand on that idea, and with examples through trial and error, further illustrate the exciting possibilities that the foodways program holds.

A jar among the various spices and preservable in the 1826 Officer’s Mess Kitchen at Fort York reads “Sago” on its label. When I was scheduled for kitchen activation, many visitors took note of the jar and some of them got excited.

“I didn’t know they had sago back then.”

“I thought it was introduced much later, maybe in the 1940s.”

“I thought sago was brought to Canada by the large population of Asian immigrants.”

Indeed, when people think of the ingredient sago today, they immediately connect it with Thai desserts, bubble tea, food from Southeast Asia, or Southern China. Why would a 19th-century British fortress potentially have sago? How did it get here, how would they use it? I soon found sago in several cookbooks dating back to that period.

Sago Pudding Recipe from a historical cookbook.

Photo courtesy of the author.

The Family Hand-book by J.W Parker (1840) Sago Pudding:

“Boil tender two ounces of sago in a pint and a half of milk; sweeten to taste, add nutmeg and grated lemon-peel to flavour, and stir in four well-beaten eggs: bake slowly in a dish edged with paste.”

Sago, for its soft texture and porridge-like consistency, was also often used in sickroom recipes.

Cook Not Mad (1831), No.95. Sago Pudding, for sickness:

"Boil a pint and a half of new milk with four spoonfuls of sago washed and picked, lemon peel, cinnamon and nutmeg, mix four eggs, put paste around the dish, and bake slowly."

Making Sago Pudding at Fort York. Photo courtesy of the author.

Sago is a starch extract from various tropical palms, local to the Pacific Islands in Southeast Asia and East Asia. It was once a staple food in ancient China, and is still widely used in New Guinea, Indonesia and the Maluku Islands today. The first instance of the west encountering sago was in Marco Polo’s account of his journey to the east. The trade through the silk road might have also brought a small number of sago pearls to Europe. I was curious to find out what made sago so easily available to European households that it was frequently mentioned in cookbooks since the 1700s.

A deep dive into google scholar yielded interesting results: I came across “A Brief Account of the Several Countries Surrounding Prince of Wales’s Island with Their Production: Recd. from Captain Leight: Enclosed in Lord Cornwallis’s Letter to Mr. Dundas, Dated 7th January, 1789.”

It recorded major products from ports under European control in Southeast Asia at the time. Since the signing of Treaty 13 in 1787 between the Mississaugas and British Settlers “granting” them the use of the land that later became Toronto, this “Brief Account” was paralleled with the British expansion in Upper Canada. To my delight, sago was mentioned in several entries, such as Siak and Malacca.

"A Brief Account," by Wurtzburg, C. E. Source.

Where is this Prince of Wales’s Island and what was its name before the colonial presence? Turns out, it is present-day Penang Island in Malaysia and it was a very important location for British occupation in Southeast and East Asia, as well for global trade routes at the time.

A summary found on “The British Empire” established Penang as a key point of the Straits Settlements in 1826. Control over the Strait of Malacca gave the British the upper hand in the trade competition with the Dutch, who previously imposed a monopoly on spice production in this area. The British occupation might be one of the reasons that products from Southeast and East Asia became more available and accessible across its Empire.

Map of Straits Settlements (1894). Source.

Though my research was far from telling a complete story of sago, the discussion about how sago became available in North America as early as the 1830s already provided many opportunities for meaningful engagement with visitors at Fort York. With the assistance of global trade route maps and research regarding the British settlement in Southeast Asia during the 1800s, I was able to interpret the rich history of sago to activate the kitchen.

I also made an attempt to plan a compare-and-contrast style workshop featuring sago with the youth volunteer program at Fort York. Though we weren’t able to realize the event due to limitations in staffing and outreach, my research has shown the potential of further deconstructing historical recipes through new and previously silenced narratives.


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