The fascinating history of Sabudana in India

It’s incomplete to imagine life without the occasional taste of Sabudana or Sago, especially during the fasting days of Navratri and Ramazan. The soft, crunchy, and zingy taste of Sago made it a staple breakfast for people across India. Be it a plate of sabudana khichri studded with peanuts and golden potatoes, warm sabudana vadas that made way directly from the south, or even the sweet sabudana porridge, the bottom line is- we all love sabudana.

In 2020, the traditional dish Sabudana khichdi finally made its way to chef and food writer Samin Nosrat, who referred to it as “your new favorite comfort food”. But does anyone really know about the intriguing journey of sabudana from the lanes of Brazil to the plates of India?

Beyond the interesting flavors, sabudana has a history of saving millions of lives.


Sabudana is made from the extract of tapioca roots, also known as cassava. The first step includes cleansing and crushing the roots and extracting the white milk as a by-product. This milk is then set out to rest for a few hours, drained of impurities, and shaped into mini globules. The globules are made by either roasting or drying them and are sometimes polished to achieve a pristine milky-white color. This tapioca tuber is then set out in the markets as sabudana or sago.

But much before the north could enjoy the delicacy, it was first introduced to India through the South, especially Kerala. The story goes back to the 19th century when a great famine hit the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore. The then ruler Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma adapted several measures to cope with the growing famine. He soon found out that starchy tuber could help revitalize the population as it is an alternate source of rice. But his subjects were hesitant as they do not know whether this tuber is safe to consume or not. Thus, to help people trust the process, the king ordered the food to be cooked for him as a royal meal every day. This way he raised awareness and instill trust in people to consume the tuber.

Soon after, tapioca became the most reliable and affordable source of food among people. After the second World War when the whole world was on the verge of starvation, tapioca tuber proved to be a savior and quickly grew as a cheap and filling protein substitute. With time, the popularity multiplied and years later tapioca became sabudana. But despite this fame, sabudana remained confined in Kerala and it wasn’t until 1943 that it traveled to Salem, Tamil Nadu as an import from southeast Asia. From Tamil Nadu, it then traveled to different parts of the country.

Much before the Indians got to know about this wonder food, sabudana was already fulfilling its role as a crucial ingredient in Chinese cuisine for over a thousand years. Prehistoric people in China used sago palm for starch much before the world got to know about rice. And once people learned about these pearl globules, there was no going back.


Sabudana could be used to make a plethora of dishes, be it the main course, snacks, or even deserts. Jingled up with potatoes, spices, herbs, peanuts, milk, jaggery, dry fruits, and sugar, it could be prepared into several dishes within no time. Some of the most famous dishes prepared from Sago are sabudana khichdi, vadas, kheers, papads, and even chocolates. Its an airy and light snack which makes it a perfect antidote to the humid summers of India.

While sabudana isn’t an ideal choice for weight loss, it does offer several health benefits. As a high-carb food, sabudana is best for an instant energy boost. It helps you feel less tired and provide enough energy for all those additional hours of hard work. As it is a gluten-free food, it is best for people suffering from celiac disease. It is also very beneficial for the guts as it improves digestion and helps in issues like bloating or constipation. Apart from it, sabudana reduces blood pressure, helps promote strong bones, and is good for gaining weight. All these benefits combined make sago a stable dietary supplement in India during fasting.

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