On a hot summer day, there’s nothing a true-blue Pinoy craves more than a tall drink of Sago’t Gulaman.
Every gulp of the saccharine summer cooler comes with a rush of sugar and sweet memories for Filipinos from all walks of life; as it cools down the body, it warms their heart.
And who can fault them for reminiscing fondly of the icy brown sugar concoction, heaped with generous amounts of chewy jelly and tapioca pearls, infused in aromatic vanilla and banana essence? It’s a delicious reprieve in any UAE weather.
“It is emotion in a glass,” explains Chef John Buenaventura. The Executive Chef at Hilton Yas Island Abu Dhabi who hails from the Philippines, and has detailed childhood recollections of merienda – afternoon snacks or high-tea had after the midday siesta – awash with the drink. As the denizens of Manila would rouse from naps, slowly powering up to face the remainder of a muggy day, street vendors trickle down the vacant lanes populating it with their pop-up stalls and waking all and sundry with their street cries and the tinkling clink of ice cubes swirling around in plastic containers of samalamigs.
“Samalamig, it’s a drink that can be anything,’ explains Chef John. ‘Lamig means cold in Tagalog and sa ma lamig means ‘I want to be in the cool air’, or ‘I want a cold drink’. So it can be sago’t gulaman, it could be a fruit-based juice, or a milk-based drink with coconut or pandan jelly. It could be pretty much anything under the sun that is cold and sweet and tasty and quenches your thirst.”
Sago’t gulaman is emotion in a glass
To put it simply, samalamig is a generic term for cold refreshments.
He doesn’t cast the phrase ‘anything under the sun’ lightly. Samalamig also embraces into its fold a well-loved Filipino dessert called buko pandan. “We’ve taken the hero elements of the dessert – coconut (buko) and pandan leaf – and turned them into a drink by blending scraped coconut cream and pandan jelly,” explains Chef John.
Think milkshake texture but lighter in calories, chewier and fragrantly tropical, courtesy the aromatic pandan extract.
But eclipsing even mouthwatering dessert-drinks is the amber-coloured Sago’t Gulaman rising to the top of the ranks of samalamigs to the extent of becoming synonymous with the term.
‘Every Filipino knows sago’t gulaman, and everybody has their own version of it,’ says Chef John.
His take on the beverage retains most of the elements that make it a nostalgic street-side offering the brown sugar reduction called arnibal, chewy tapioca pearls (sago) and gulaman or jelly.
A traditional sago’t gulaman’s gulaman originates from gelatinous residue extracted from red algae called agar-agar whose gummy elasticity has clinched it pride of place amongst ingredients in Filipino cooking, notably desserts such as the iconic Filipino flan halo-halo. Gulaman also scores brownie points for being plant-based and a great vegan substitute for gelatin.
Chef John’s interpretation eschews the traditional agar-based gulaman and supplements it with its gelatin-based jelly that he infuses with lychee juice. And in doing so, he is far from thumbing his nose at the conventional recipe. “Your street-side sago’t gulaman uses Chinese black jelly (grass jelly) or they use red tapioca – it’s all for colour and visual appeal, the flavour can be anything,” he clarifies. And guess what? The Chinese black jelly although plant-based isn’t made from agar. So gulaman, over time, has become an umbrella term for jelly. Which means even store-bought readymade jellies and gummy bears are fair game.
Chef John personally favours lychee jelly because its tangy sweetness harmoniously offsets the cloying fruitiness of the banana essence – the backbone of the drink. The banana essence is what elevates ordinary sugar-water concoction to a well-bodied juice with depth, substance and scent.
A lot of times the banana flavouring is buried under overpowering vanilla essence and some recipes don’t even include it, says Chef John. But it’s always perceptible in what vendors ladle into plastic bags and hand weary commuters, wide-eyed parched tourists and mischievous young students who’d spit wad the sticky tapioca pearls on passersby.
He gives the banana flavour a leg up by concocting a potent banana essence using banana blossoms along with off-the-shelf flavouring. The blossoms are dried so they leave a faint salty trail in the drink which cuts through the drink’s intense syrupiness and balances it with a savoury undertone.
The chewy bite that the tapioca pearls and jelly adds to the drink is a trend that seems to thread its way through Southeast Asian countries, points out Chef John. Whether it’s Taiwanese boba/bubble tea’s fever that’s gripped the world, or Vietnamese Che or Indonesia Cincau and Singapore’s soy-milk black-jelly brew named Michael Jackson (a cheeky reference of the drink’s colouring to the late popstar’s hit Black or White), all the drinks have munchy elements that lend some bite to an otherwise liquid base.
He also adds an observation: “Our [Filipino] version is just really simpler because the ingredients are readily available in the market, and it’s cheap to make.”
On the street side, this translates to a thirst-quencher that does double duty as a snack but conveniently settles into go-to carry cups/bags, and all that for half the price of a meal. Talk about more bang for the mere buck or so it costs.
“It’s surprisingly filling because it fills your stomach up with gelatin and tapioca. There’s not much nutrients in it – just sugar and carbohydrates. But the thing is, it’s a perfect drink especially for [Filipinos] because we’re always active or on the move [in really hot weather] all the time, so it gives us the energy we need.”
The final result is a fun tea-coloured juice where jelly and tapioca pearls sink to the bottom and play hide-and-seek with a pile of ice cubes.
Does it house the energy needed to recharge you on a humid day? Yes. But it’s also a powerhouse of flavour and tantalising texture that your tastebuds want and deserve.
Sago’t Gulaman recipe (Chef John's version)
500 ml water
120 gms pack gelatin powder
300 ml lychee juice (for the gelatin)
200 gms dark brown sugar
50 gms dried tapioca pearls (boiled)
10 ml vanilla essence
10 ml banana essence
Gelatin or Gulaman:
1. In a saucepan, boil 500 ml of water. In a separate bowl dissolve gelatin powder in cold water.
2. Then, transfer it to the pot over low heat until the gelatin is melted. Another option is to dissolve it in fruit juice like lychee.
3. Strain it after to remove any lumps or residue. Pour it into a tray or mould. Let it stand to cool at room temperature. Once cooled and firm, you can start slicing it into small cubes using a knife.
In the same pot, boil 6 cups of water. Add the sugar; stir constantly over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add it the vanilla and banana essence to it and take it off the fire. Set aside to cool.
Assemble the drink:
Adding the cooked tapioca pearls and lychee jelly in individual glasses. Pour the syrup into the glasses, then top with crushed ice as desired.
If the drink is too sweet for your taste, add more water into the mixture and serve immediately.
Location Courtesy: Skafos, Canopy by Hilton Dubai Al Seef
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