Wheat doesn't really grow in the Philippines. We've heard about it growing in very small quantities, but we've never actually seen it. It's just one of those things that you find in every part of the world, in the standard form of "all-purpose flour".
The standard flour is usually bleached with benzoyl peroxide, chlorine gas, or other bleaching agents. The latter makes flour white and shortcuts the aging process. There is a lot of debate about the safety involving byproducts of bleaching (alloxan, in particular, which has been linked to diabetes). This technology has allowed the massive scaling up of the flour milling industry, allowing for millions of tons to be processed each day. Which is quite an abnormal thing, in the greater scheme of the earth, I suppose.
More people have been requesting for gluten-free flours and starches, too. So, though a bit difficult to come across, we've started to search for alternative flours. All the folks that have been asking, these are for you!
Sago starch (sometimes called a flour) is used in Southeast Asia and South Asia. In the Philippines, it used as a staple food predominantly by lumads (indigenous people), but historically was widespread in some parts of Mindanao-- we were even importing them from Makassar. Today, Butuan is a place that is particularly notable in its continuing use of sago. The non-kakanin kakanin palagsing inspires spontaneous emotional poetry among locals. Tumpi and inisab do the same.
Forest starches are growing increasingly uncommon in the Philippines. In our observation, the Visayas region uses its buri starch in the same way as sago starch is used in Mindanao. The starch is extracted from the wild sago palm (Metroxylon sagu) in a very labor-intensive process (which the fantastic EatingAsia has documented so well here).
Our partner producers here are the indigenous Manobo of Agusan del Sur (where the starch is called natek), who are making the starch as a sustainable forest product exploration. It is grown without pesticides or fertilizers. We use it as sauce thickeners (in place of the horrifyingly ubiquitous corn starch) and to make our version of puto seko with coconut sugar. It is very easily digestible and can be used in porridge for convalescents or babies. It may also be substituted for the starch component of gluten-free flour mixes. Some use it to make ice cream cones. We would love to hear how you guys can find uses for it.
Here are some other recipes we've compiled and will try out through the weeks. We'll also be posting our kitchen experiments in the coming days.
South Indian Sago Papadoms
Indonesian Es Cendol, a super yummy shaved ice snack
Indonesian Pempek Palembang, sort of like fish balls
Indonesian Sagu Keju (Cheese Biscuits), just substitute butter for the margarine
Indonesian Steamed Kue Pepe (Layer Sago Cake)
Malaysian Fried Sago Pancakes
Papuan Saksak (Sweet Sago-Banana Dumplings)
Singaporean Sago Cookies, like uraro or puto seko
We'll be bringing some this weekend to the Legazpi Market, so bring your containers!