Tracing The History Of Sabudana, India's Favourite Fasting Food

When it comes to festival season, a lot of people have to start thinking about how to approach fasting. Especially for Navratri, many people all over the country will be observing a holy vrat and with it comes all sorts of dietary restrictions. And at times like this, one food always becomes the centre of attention. Sabudana.

These small tapioca pearls are a staple of fasting foods all across the country and are used to make many dishes like khichdi, vadas and even kheer, all within the guidelines of festival fasting traditions. 

Sabudana's creation begins with the tapioca root, also known as cassava which is cleaned, crushed and then squeezed to collect a milky liquid which is then left to rest for a few hours. This liquid is then filtered to give it a thicker consistency and then processed into small spheres which we know as sabudana. These balls are then steamed, roasted, dried or even polished to give them the familiar look we associate with Sabudana.

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The use of tapioca in Indian cuisine dates back to South India, specifically Kerala, during the 1800s. It was a time of great famine in the erstwhile kingdom of Travancore, and the ruler, Ayilyam Thirunal Rama Varma, along with his brother and successor Visakham Thirunal Maharaja, sought measures to alleviate the crisis. It was the botanist brother, Vishakham, who discovered the potential of tapioca to provide sustenance. However, people were initially wary of this foreign root, fearing it might be poisonous. To build trust, Vishakham ordered that tapioca be prepared in a specific way, with thorough cleaning and boiling, discarding the water in between, to remove its natural bitterness. This method convinced the people of its safety and led to the incorporation of tapioca, known as kappa, into Kerala cuisine.

But even though it’s hard to picture over cuisine without sabudana, the journey of how it became an Indian staple is probably more recent than you think. When it first hit Indian shores as an export from Singapore and Malaysia and it wasn’t until around the Second World War that tapioca's role as a reliable and nutritious source of sustenance was further solidified, particularly when rice was scarce. 

When imports became tough, the first production units opened up in Salem, Tamil Nadu, less than 80 years ago and have continued to be a hub of sabudana production till today. And once India discovered the value of these milky-white pearls that swelled when soaked overnight they were used to create an array of delicious dishes, and their popularity skyrocketed.

In Indian cuisine, Sabudana is used to prepare various dishes, including khichdis, vadas, papads, and kheers, by adding ingredients like potatoes, spices, herbs, peanuts, milk, jaggery, dry fruits, and sugar. What makes Sabudana unique is its light and airy texture, making it a perfect choice for combating the hot and humid Indian summers.

The debate over Sabudana's nutritional value has persisted over the years. While some argue that it lacks protein and is high in carbohydrates, others believe it can be a beneficial addition to one's diet, especially for women. Additionally, Sabudana is considered good for gut and digestive health. However, it is advised not to consume it daily due to its high-calorie content. In Kerala, where Sabudana's protein content is deficient, it is often consumed with fish curry and other meats. Its primary contribution to the vegetarian diet lies in its carbohydrate and calorie content.

While Sabudana's close relatives, like boba in bubble tea and cassava flour, have gained international recognition, Sabudana itself has yet to achieve global acclaim. Nevertheless, it remains a cherished part of Indian cuisine, particularly during festivals like Navratri. As the summer season approaches, the aroma of toasted peanuts and fried Sabudana wafts through the air, reminding us of this humble yet delightful culinary gem.