Coconut Sago Desserts


Adventures with Coconuts

Friday, June 15, 2012 | By:

Don’t be deceived by coconut sago’s pure white broth or playful pearls of chewy goodness—behind its innocent appearance lurks a history both ancient and dark, one that tells an epic tale of daring explorations, court intrigues and mercantile migrations.

Coconut sago (椰汁西米露  yēzhī ximǐlù) is a sweet, silky white porridge made from coconut milk and sago, a kind of palm starch shaped into pearls that resemble tapioca balls. Served hot or cold, it’s a refreshingly light way to end a meal. The dessert can be found all over the country—but the origins aren’t Chinese.

In the early 1400’s Zheng He (郑和), the revered fleet admiral, diplomat and explorer (not to mention eunuch) began leading his landmark voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa. (We’ve further covered his exploits in our Adventure Issue, which you can buy in our store.)

Spearheaded by the Yongle Emperor, these expeditions would prove instrumental in spreading the influence of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to remote corners of the globe. The voyages also helped bolster a vast network of cultural and commercial routes to southeastern Asia and beyond, all the way to the eastern shores of Africa.

As a result of Zheng He’s voyages, more and more Chinese began settling in the Malacca peninsula (now part of Malaysia). Some Malay texts even claim that in 1459 the emperor sent Ming princess Han Libao to be the wife of a Malay sultan as a token of appreciation for the sultan’s previous tribute to the Ming court.

Most of the settlers were young men who began intermarrying with the local women. Chinese and Malay traditions began to fuse, sowing the seeds of what would eventually become the unique Peranakan (土生华人 tǔshēng huárén, also known as Baba-Nyonya or Straits Chinese) culture.

Now an established part of Malaysian culinary traditions, Peranakan cuisine makes heavy use of coconut milk and sago, two of the main food staples of Borneo, Malaysia and Indonesia. One of the most popular Peranakan desserts is called gula melaka sago, a pudding made from coconut milk, sago pearls and palm sugar. Sound familiar?

Coconut sago began spreading throughout the land. These days, the dessert is popular in Southern China, where in the winter, people chow down on a Cantonese version served hot with hearty extras like taro root. For a cooler variety, closer to its Malaysian roots, coconut sago is served cool or tepid, with chunks of mango and other tropical fruit.Now that summer is upon us, there are more reasons to eat coconut sago than its illustrious past or mellow-sweet flavor. As a Malaysian friend recently told me, coconut milk is great for cooling down because its sugar-rich composition makes it extremely hydrating, while the refreshing taste is great for fighting the heat. “Summer is the best time to eat it,” agrees cook Zhou Su E. “It’s creamy, sweet, and silky, and you can add whatever fruit you want to adjust it to your own taste.” Best of all for the ladies, Zhou says, is papaya. “Papaya is a good fruit for women,” she says. “It’s full of special vitamins for them, and they say it’s good for beauty.”

Coconut is also packed with healthy oils that are great for moisturizing skin and hair. So the next time summer heat’s got you down, whip up a bowl of coconut sago for a refreshing and nourishing treat, with a little history on the side.

100g of small or big sago grains
西米 ximǐ

1 can of coconut cream
椰浆 yējiāng

100g of fresh milk
鲜牛奶 xiān niúnǎi

150g of crystallized or refined white sugar
冰糖 bīngtáng/白砂糖 báishātáng

900ml of water
水 shuǐ


1. Bring the water to boil in pot, reduce heat and add sago grains

2.Boil sago for approximately five minutes, stir to prevent sticking

3. Remove sago and put in cool water

4. Add more water to the pot, bring back to boil and return the cooled sago grains. Boil, continuing to stir, until the sago turns translucent (or pale white). Turn off the heat, cover and simmer for five minutes.

5. Return boiled sago to cold water. The grains should look like little pearls.

6. Pour coconut cream and milk into a pot and bring to boil. Add sugar according to taste.

7. Put sago pearls in two bowls and add boiled coconut milk. Let cool and refrigerate for one hour, or to desired temperature.

8. Add fruit as preferred


For another sweet Chinese treat that’ll keep you cool too? Try Bao Bing-a-ling. 

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Braised Bamboo Shoots and Mushroom



With swimsuit season in full swing, many will be keen to keep the greasy meat out of their recipes and turn to lighter ingredients that will freshen their day. Bamboo shoots and mushrooms have long been a part of the traditional Chinese diet, usually in a more supporting role, but if you turn them into the stars of the dish, the texture and aroma they offer will exceed all your expectations. Since braised mushroom and bamboo shoots are considered a classic dish in Shandong cuisine, we chose Chef Yu Peng from Qingyunlou restaurant, a Beijing restaurant brand famous for its Shandong style that dates back over a hundred years ago.

“Its flavor is better than camel hump or civet cat meat!” Hey, don’t jump to conclusions. It’s not a rare wild animal on the menu, just a quote from poet Lu You (陆游, 1125-1210) on a treasured forest vegetable—bamboo shoots (竹笋 zhúsǔn). Inside layers of brown husks covered in harp hairs, the conical, creamy-colored tender delicacy is one of nature’s greatest gifts. Three thousand years ago Chinese people believed it to be one of the tastiest things on earth. Pickled bamboo shoots were actually listed as offerings to the gods according to Rites of Zhou (《周礼》Zhōulǐ), an ancient ritual text.

Qingyunlou庆云楼No. 22 Qianhai Lake East Bank, Dongcheng District, Beijing010-6401958

Bamboo shoots are delicious and rich in nutrients such as protein, amino acids, and potassium. According to the TMC bible Compendium of Materia Medica (《本草纲目》Běncǎo Gāngmù), the bamboo shoot “quenches thirst, benefits the liquid circulatory system, supplements qi, and can be served as a daily dish.” Modern medical science has also found a number of benefits from bamboo shoots, from cancer prevention to weight loss and improved digestion. Low in calories and fat, bamboo shoots can certainly help to build a healthy and balanced diet, as suggested in the saying: 吃一餐笋能刮三天油 (chī yī cān sǔn néng guā sān tiān yóu), meaning, “a meal of bamboo shoots can scrape off three days worth of grease from your body”.

As one the largest bamboo producing countries in the world, China has over 200 different types of bamboo, mainly found in the south part of the country along major rivers. Fresh bamboo shoots are available all year-round, but timing is still essential; only winter and spring bamboo shoots (冬笋 dōngsǔn, 春笋 chūnsǔn) yield the best texture and taste. Winter bamboo shoots are collected in early winter when they are still underground. An expert collector only needs to look at the color of the bamboo leaves to decide where to dig. Collectors know not to take all the shoots and to leave some in order for them to grow into spring bamboo shoots. Around Tomb-Sweeping Day next year, collectors will set out to get the shoots again. When they start to emerge from the soil, there are only 10 days left to harvest them before they lose their tender nature and mature into actual bamboo. Rain fall at this time stimulates more bamboo shoots to break the ground, thus the phrase 雨后春笋 (yǔ hòu chūnsǔn), meaning “(new things) spring up like bamboo shoots after a spring rain.”

Though pricy in the national market, for the bamboo collectors, spring bamboo shoots are a common seasonal treat. Take some of the freshest bamboo shoots, cut them into small strips, add in bacon slices and cook with low heat for an hour or so. You will have a widespread Zhejiang folk dish 腌笃鲜 (yāndǔxiān) on your table. Unseasoned bamboo shoots taste plain, even with traces of bitterness, but when cooked with other ingredients, it will absorb their flavors and add crunchiness to the overall experience.

Braised mushroom and bamboo shoots traditionally contain winter bamboo shoots and dried winter mushrooms, thus the name “Braised Two Winters” (烧二冬 shāo’èrdōng). With the spring bamboo shoots on the market, the dish will have to make do with one winter: the dried mushrooms. Follow Chef Yu Peng and enjoy the combination of ivory white spring bamboo and chocolate brown mushroom in no time.


Braised Mushrooms and Bamboo Shoots
(Serves 2)

100 g Winter Mushrooms 冬菇 dōnggū

100 g Bamboo Shoots 竹笋 zhúsǔn

200 g Chicken Broth 鸡汤 jītāng

1000 g Water 水 shuǐ

30 g Scallion Oil 葱油 cōngyóu

2 tablespoons of Oyster Sauce 蚝油 háoyóu

10 g Cornstarch 玉米淀粉 yùmǐ diànfěn

1/2 tablespoon of Pepper 胡椒 hújiāo

1 teaspoon of Sugar 糖 táng

2 teaspoons of Soy Sauce 酱油 jiàngyóu

1/4 teaspoon of Salt 盐 yán

1/2 tablespoon of Cooking Wine 料酒 liàojiǔ

Immerse the dried mushrooms in water overnight to soften them. Drain and cut off their roots. Peel the bamboo shoots, cut it open and wash thoroughly.

Lay the knife horizontally and slice the bamboo shoots and mushrooms: choose the top part of the bamboo shoots, which is tender. Remove its skin and proceed into inner part. With one hand holding the material in place, slowly work your way to achieve equal slices.

Heat 1,000g water in a wok until boiled. Add the bamboo shoots and mushroom slices. Boil for 30 seconds in order to get rid of the bitterness and remove to drain.

In a dry wok, heat scallion oil (fry scallion slices in cooking oil) to 150℃ and add soy sauce (Don't get splashed!) Then add slices, stir for 20 seconds and add chicken broth.

Add other seasonings: oyster sauce, sugar, cooking wine, salt and pepper. Stir constantly and braise for another 2 to 3 minutes. Take cornstarch and add water to make starch sauce. Stir well to prevent lumping.

Pour the sauce around the ingredients in the wok, stir until even. The sauce of the dish should now be thicker. Heat for a few more seconds and the dish should be ready to serve.

Zhi Ma Hu

zhi ma hu

An impenetrable steak and 芝麻湖 (zhīmahú, sesame paste).   These are the two legacies of my host mother’s cooking that remain with me from studying abroad in Nanjing three years ago.  Whereas the petrified steak was a single tragic attempt at cooking Western style food, the black sesame porridge became a daily morning staple while I lived in this southern Chinese home.

“This is very good for your health,” my āyí(阿姨, “aunty,” host mom) introduced 芝麻湖 to me during our first breakfast together.

Healthy indeed.  If you suffer from an incorrigible rasp, a bum kidney, a buildup of gallstones, pre-mature graying and balding, constipation, fatty blood streams or a pock-marked face, a daily bowl of 芝麻湖 just might come to your rescue, according to Chinese medicine (中医, zhōngyī) tradition.

By itself, I’ll admit, sesame paste is a rather dull treat.  Moreover, it can look like tar and gravel slop mixed with baby food.  However, the real glory of 芝麻糊 comes in its experimental value. The paste, which is sold in powder form, acts like a soup broth in that it forms the base for mixing other various ingredients together.  That’s when the taste of 芝麻糊 really shines.

My host mom’s recipe for black sesame porridge shifted from time to time, but it usually came prepared mixed with a little soy milk, oatmeal, beans and sugar.  In truth, many recipes exist for whipping up a steaming bowl of 芝麻糊 without a definitive original recipe.  As for me, now left to my own devices, I usually concoct my daily porridge using soy milk powder, oatmeal, nuts and raisins.  Recently, my mom sent me a massive package of trail mix—M&M’s chocolate candies, raisins, cashews, almonds and peanuts—which I used for the porridge until I quickly blew through it all.  Definitely my favorite style of 芝麻糊 to date.

How to make a healthy bowl of 芝麻糊:


-One individual package of black sesame paste powder (芝麻糊 is sold by the bag and found in any major Chinese supermarket)

-One individual package of soy milk powder (豆浆粉, dòujiāng fěn, is sold similarly in bags and also found in any Chinese supermarket)

-Oatmeal (燕麦片, yànmàipiàn)

-Peanuts (花生米, huāshēngmǐ)

-Raisins (葡萄干, pútaogān)

-Boiled water (开水, kāishuǐ)


1.  Boil water

2.  Assemble other dry ingredients in a bowl

3.  Mix bowled water with ingredients and stir thoroughly until all the powder dissolves into a liquid

4.  吃!(chī, eat!)

Buddha’s Delight


A delicate recipe filled with crisp vegetables and tangy sauce, Buddha’s Delight (Luóhàn zhāi, 罗汉斋) is a scrumptious and long-standing tradition of Chinese and Buddhist cuisine. For those looking for a simple “Zen” meal to revitalize, without being bogged down with heavy, meaty ingredients, Buddha’s Delight offers a special treat.

Traditionally enjoyed by vegetarian Buddhist monks, Buddha’s Delight combines a mix-match of vegetarian and vegan ingredients.  Common ingredients include baby corn, snow peas, cabbage, mushrooms, carrots, garlic, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, fried tofu, and noodles. If you are making the dish at home, one of the great aspects of the recipe is the ability to customize the dish to one’s personal taste: Buddha’s Delight tastes delicious with nearly any combination of fresh veggies.



Generally, Buddha’s Delight is made with at least 10 ingredients, but the king of Buddha’s Delight can be made with 18 ingredients. If Buddha’s Delight is made with 18 ingredients, the dish is often called Luóhàn quánzhāi, (罗汉全斋).

A couple of trademark and more unusual ingredients include dried lily buds (干黄花菜) and ginkgo nuts (白果). Preparing the ingredients is simply a matter of stir-frying and steaming. For a quick and convenient experience, pop the dish into the microwave.



Although you may not be on a monk’s spiritual quest for self-purification, the protein and vitamin rich recipe will at least be equivalent to knocking off a few laps at the gym.



  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 4 cloves of garlic minced
  • 5 slices ginger
  • 15g (‘nam yee’/red fermented bean curd (豆腐乳)
  • 100g napa cabbage (大白菜) cut to small pieces
  • small piece of fat choy (fa cai/发菜)
  • 35g bean curd sticks (腐竹) soaked in water until softened, drained
  • 50g bamboo shoots (笋) sliced thinly
  • 100g dried/braised gluten (面筋) (note: you can also use mock vegetarian abalone which is made of fried gluten)
  • 100g baby corn sliced diagonally (玉米笋)
  • 1 carrot peeled and slice thinly (胡萝卜)
  • 50g snow peas (荷兰豆) gently break off the ends and pull off the “strings”
  • 3 bean curd puffs/‘tau pok’ sliced to strips (豆腐卜)
  • 15 vacuum-packed or canned ginkgo nuts (白果)
  • 15 vacuum-packed or canned lotus seeds (蓮子)
  • 30g cellophane noodles/‘tang hoon’ (粉絲) soaked in water until softened, drained

Soak the following in individual bowls of hot water for 30 mins, drain & cut to smaller pieces:

  • 10 dried Chinese mushrooms (干香菇) after soaking, discard stems before cutting
  • 10g dried black (wood ear) fungus (木耳) after soaking, trim and discard the hard portion on the centre underside of the fungus
  • 15g dried lily buds (金针 or 干黄花菜) after soaking, tie each lily bud with a knot

Sauce (mix well in a small bowl)

  • 2 tbsp vegetarian oyster flavored sauce
  • a small pinch of sugar
  • a dash of white pepper powder
  • 2 tsp corn flour
  • 1 tbsp sesame oil


Directions (Stove-Top Recipe) 

  1. Heat oil in wok. Stir fry chopped garlic & ginger until fragrant. Then add nam yee and mash it to smaller pieces with the spatula.
  2. Add cabbage and stir fry till softened (a few minutes).
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the tang hoon) together with Sauce (A) and 2/3 cup water. Bring to a boil then cover with lid and let the vegetables simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Anytime the water runs dry, you can top up with hot water or stock.
  4. When the vegetables are cooked and the water is reduced, add tang hoon and stir briefly to allow the tang hoon to absorb the sauce.

Directions (Microwave Recipe)

  1. Add cabbage in the casserole with 50ml water. Cover with lid and microwave on high (900 watts) for 5 minutes, or until the cabbage withers. Set aside the cooked cabbage in a plate.
  2. When the casserole has cooled, discard water and wipe it dry with paper towel. Add cooking oil, garlic, ginger and nam yee. Cover with lid and microwave on high for 2  minutes. Use a spatula to mash the nam yee.
  3. Add the rest of the ingredients and 50ml water. Cover with lid and microwave on high for 2 minutes. Stir to coat the ingredients evenly with the sauce.
  4. Prepare the sauce by mixing the ingredients listed in (A) with 2 tbsp water in a small bowl. Drizzle the sauce over the ingredients and stir thoroughly to coat the ingredients evenly with the sauce. Cover with lid and microwave on high for 2 minutes, or until all the ingredients are cooked.

For more information about the recipe for this dish, go to