Do you know certain trees are “edible”? You may have tasted it too, for example, the tiny jello-like balls in famous Malaysian dessert, Bo-Bo Cha-Cha (or Bubur Cha-Cha) is from Sago Palm, an important crop for people living in south-west of Sabah. Sago is known as Rumbia locally and a kind of starch that is extracted from the sago palm.
In Sabah, sago palm was once planted extensively in the wetlands of the west coast like Beaufort, Kuala Penyu, Papar and Penampang. However, the scale is getting small now because rice has replaced sago as the main source of carbohydrate.
Rumbia Information Center / Sago Information Center
Sago palm is also called the “Tree of a Thousand Uses”. If you are on a tour to Klias or Pulau Tiga Island, you may drop by the Rumbia Information Center (Sago Information Center, or Pusat Informasi Rumbia in Malaysian language) near Kuala Penyu town.
You can check out the 4-hectare sago plantation in the Center on a boardwalk. The signage, labels and information at the Center are displayed or presented in both Malay and English languages.
If you are lost in jungle, finding a sago palm can save your life. Sago is almost pure carbohydrate, an energy food which also contains a bit of protein, vitamins, and minerals. One palm can yield more than 50 Kg of starch, which yields 355 calories for every 100g, and its leaves and trunk are great materials to make tools and shelter! During WWII, the locals survived from starvation by eating sago.
Sago Exhibition Hall
The exhibition hall is the first highlight of the Center. Besides reading information about Sago, you also can see variety of handmade handicrafts made of sago leaves, bark and stem.
In the audio-visual room, visitors can watch a 30-min video that introduces the uses, processing and story of sago. The narrative is in Malay language but English subtitles are shown.
Over 50 handicrafts are on display. Most items are baskets, utensils, containers, mat, hats, fishing net, farming tools, etc. and some items are made of coconut leaves, bamboo and rattan. They are not so common nowadays, because plastic stuffs are more readily available.
In addition to sago, there are many information panels and photographs about the wetland ecology and wildlife in Klias Peninsular.
The hall is air-conditioned. Depending on your level of interest, a tour in Rumbia Information Center usually takes only one or two hours.
The craftsmanship is so fine that I want to buy them all (a few items are available for purchase). I think they are made by Dusun Tatana, Bisaya and Orang Brunei tribes live in Kuala Penyu district.
Sago Information Center isn’t a well-known tourist spot, so you (or your group) would be the only visitor most of the time.
You may watch the 1.5-min video below about Sago Exhibition:
The Legend of Sago
I heard a sad story about the origin of sago during my visit. During old days in Kuala Penyu, there was a woman who could feed her family very well. Even though food was scarce, she was able to bring home food every day. Her husband was suspicious and decided to stalk her one day. He saw his wife placed a nyiru (straw colander) on the ground and started shaking her sarong. Then many small white pellets dropped from her body to the nyiru and that’s the stuff he ate. He was so furious and accused his wife of feeding him nasi kangkang (literally means crotch rice), which is a black magic used by women, in urban legend, who mix the rice with their menstrual blood, and believe that their husband will be subservient to the wives after eating it.
Knowing that her husband would kill her, the woman begged her husband to cut her body at waist level into half, and bury them in different spots. After some times, a nypa-like tree with smooth bark grew at the spot where her upper part was buried. And a similar tree, but with thorns, grew on another spot. Both are sago palms that produce sago and are scientifically known as matroxylon sagus (no thorn) and metroxylon rumphii (with thorns) respectively.
At this point, you would ask, “How to ‘eat’ sago tree then? Do you cut down the tree, chop it and bite it?”
NO!!!! The starch needs to be extracted from sago stem first. After cutting down the sago palm, the farmers will remove the outer hard skin and process the spongy center of the trunk. Then they crush the stem with a wooden board (garus) full of nails in sawing movement, to break the pith into smaller pieces.
Next step they will collect the sago pieces and lay them on a mat which acts as a filter. A worker will pour water on sago pieces, continuously kneading them with feet, the starchy liquid will flow into a container. The starch powder will be collected after drying the water.
The traditional method is very labor intensive and time-consuming. Nowadays, electrical sago processing machine can grate, filter and collect the sago starch. You can see this machine demo in Sago Information Center.
The starch from sago can be used for making different kinds of delicious food such as cake, dessert, biscuit and pudding. Sago flour can be used similarly to other types of flour. It is used in baking bread and pancake too.
In Sabah, sago starch is mixed with boiling water to make the popular local cuisine called the Ambuyat, a traditional way to enjoy sago. Usually locals eat it with fishes and soup, which go well with smooth texture of ambuyat.
Sago Grubs (Butod)
Sago grub (Local Name: Butod) is a “byproduct” of sago cultivation. Beetles also know the richness of carbohydrates in sago stem, and their babies (larva) grow so fat eating sago. When farmers harvest sago, they collect these juicy worms as food too. You can even eat it raw if you dare.
You may read this article about eating sago worm as delicacy. Sago grub is not cheap though, each is sold for RM1.00 and it’s a hot selling item in native market.
Sago Festival (Pesta Rumbia)
So, are you drooling? You can sample different kind of exotic sago food (include worms) and dishes during Sago Festival (known as Pesta Rumbia in local language) in Kuala Penyu for a few dollars only. This sago buffet is very popular. The tickets sold out fast, so don’t miss it.
Sago is so important to the local community that Kuala Penyu celebrates Sago Festival annually (usually in July). You may find out the date of this biggest cultural event in Kuala Penyu in Sabah Tourism website.
Sago is normally sold in the shape of very tiny, colorful balls called sago pearls. When soaked and cooked, the pearls become larger, translucent, soft and spongy.
Sago palm can grow very fast (about 1.5 Meters per year) so it is ideal as an alternative staple food.
Sago palm takes 9 to 12 years to mature. You must cut it down before it starts to flower for 2 months, otherwise the fruiting will exhaust the starch and then the tree dies.
It’s all about sago during Sago Festival, you can check out exhibition, sago food buffet, Sago Beauty Queen Pageant, cultural shows, handicraft making demonstration, sago processing, games, etc.
Entrance Fee & Opening Hours
Rumbia Information Center is managed by district office of Sabah Forestry Department in Beaufort. Apart from providing basic information on sago, it is also open to public as a tourist destination. The following is the ticket price to enter the Center (rates as of Mar 2016):
Walk-in visitor is welcome. You also can organize a group tour with the Center. Their staff can give you an interpretation walk and education tour for better experience. You can even try eating the live Sago Grub. You are advised to inform them a few days prior to your group trip.
Below is the opening hours of Rumbia Information Center:
Mon-Thu, Sat, Sun, Public Holidays: 9am – 12pm, 2pm – 4:30pm
Fri: 9am – 11:30am, 2pm – 4:30pm
Tel: +60 87-897073
Address: Pusat Informasi Rumbia, Kompleks Perhutanan Kimanis, KM 61, Lebuhraya KK-Beaufort, Sabah, Malaysia
GPS Coordinates: 5.496861, 115.543920 (see Location Map or Street View)
Besides exhibition hall and boardwalk through sago palms, Rumbia Information Center has other amenities and services such as conference room for rent, food catering and laundry.
The toilet is quite clean. Overall, this Center is quite tourist-friendly. Their staffs are very helpful and friendly too (can speak and understand simple English).
The cafes there don’t sell or cook sago grubs. If you want to have a butod feast, you need to arrange with the Center at least 1 day in advance.
Accommodation is available in the Center and named as Orchid Rest House (Rumah Rehat Orkid) suitable for family or student group. The house has two rooms, each room has two double decker bunk beds to host 4 people. The rest house is complete with kitchen (with cooking gas and utensils), toilet, air-conditioning, fan, parking, dining table, and living room. The accommodation can be rented as RM400 (≈US$100) per day for whole resthouse, RM160 (≈US$40) per room per day, or RM40 (≈US$10) per person per day. You can call Mr. Hillary at +60 13-5462717 for booking (or ordering Sago Grubs).
How to get there
Rumbia Information Center is located next to Menumbok – Kuala Penyu highway at Kampung Kasugira (Kasugira village), about 114 KM away from Kota Kinabalu city (KK). When you reach the roundabout (which has turtle statues on it) about 10 KM before Kuala Penyu town, take the junction to Menumbok. After 1.5 KM, you will see Rumbia Information Center at your left (see Location Map or Street View).
If you depart from KK, the road trip will take approximately 3 hours on asphalt road in good condition. You also can take a bus that heads to Menumbok, but to return to KK, you have to take a bus to Beaufort town first, then get another bus from there, quite troublesome. Taxi is a better choice if you have more money.
Photos taken in Kuala Penyu, Sabah, Malaysia Borneo