It’s hard to know how to describe sabudhana. Like couscous, many’s the unwitting cook who’s confused it with a grain or a seed. In actual fact, though (much like couscous), sabudhana is more like a pasta than anything else. The small, pearl-like balls are made out of the starch extracted from the pith of sago palms. This fact will probably be of little practical use to Western readers, to whom the tropical sago palm is probably just as alien as these little Styrofoam-like balls themselves. Still, it’s a good fact to be familiar with and a nice little bit of starch trivia to keep in your pocket. (Another good-to-know tidbit: sabudhana is both gluten- and grain-free.)
In Karnataka, where I grew up, the word for these sago pearls is sabakki. They’re often used to make uppittu, the savory pudding that’s commonly eaten for breakfast throughout the state. But they’re probably at their most delicious when they’re combined with a little mashed potato, some spices, fresh herbs, and some peanuts, formed into compact little patties, and fried into vadas. Sabudhana vadas are a traditional snack in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Maharashtra’s shared border has pretty much ensured that they’ve become a sort of adopted favorite among many cooks in Karnataka, too.
These vadas come together quickly, and are a satisfying way to use up leftover mashed potatoes (a frequent issue in my house, though one you won’t find me complaining about). I offer the recipe below less as a formula and more as a suggestion, one that I leave wide open to elaboration. The one thing to be careful about is the consistency of the mixture. You want to make sure to add enough potato to bind the dough together. I like a pretty even ratio of sabudhana to potato, just to be safe, but you can start with less potato and add more if you find that it’s not holding together. The last thing you want is for your vadas to fall apart when you slip them into the hot oil to fry them.
Other than that, the sky’s the limit: change up the spices as you like, use almonds if you like instead of peanuts (though do try it with peanuts first, the results are unexpectedly delicious), or maybe even switch out the cilantro for some mint or dill—go crazy!
A note on sago: You can buy sago pearls in most well-stocked Indian grocery stores, where they are usually sold as “sabudhana.” Also note that the sabudhana has to be soaked for at least three or four hours before it’s cooked.
A note on black salt: Black salt is a common ingredient in many Indian dishes. It has a distinctive, sulfurous aroma and adds a deep, funky note to many dishes, from chaats to dhals. It’s a bit of an acquired taste, though one worth acquiring, in my opinion. If you can’t get a hold of black salt, which you’ll see being sold as kala namak in any good Indian grocery store, feel free to substitute regular salt.
Makes 10–12 vadas
½ cup sabudhana
1 cup peeled, cooked, mashed, and cooled potato
¼ cup toasted peanuts
2 tbsp cilantro, roughly chopped
1 green chilli, finely minced (or to taste)
Black salt (optional)
1 tsp toasted cumin seeds
Juice of 1 lime
Vegetable oil for deep frying.
In a medium bowl, soak the sago in enough cool water to cover by at least 2 inches. Set aside for at least 3–4 hours.
When ready to form the patties, drain the sabudhana well and discard the soaking water. The balls of sabudhana should have swollen up to roughly three times their original size.
In a large bowl, mix together all the ingredients, holding back at least half of the potato.
Using your hand, massage the dough together, adding more potato as needed, till the dough comes together and holds a shape with confidence. Taste for salt, herbs, spice, and adjust as needed.
Dipping your hands occasionally in cool water to keep the dough from sticking to it, form the dough into flat patties about 2 inches across. As you prepare them, set them on a baking sheet lined with plastic wrap. You can prepare and form the vadas upto a day ahead of time.
When you’re ready to fry the vadas, heat an inch of the vegetable oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan till an instant-read thermometer dipped in the oil registers 350°F.
Working carefully but quickly, slip the vadas into the hot oil, taking care not to splash yourself and making sure not to crowd the pan.
Let the vadas fry till they’re golden brown and crisp on one side. Then use a slotted spoon to carefully flip them over. Continue to fry till equally golden brown and crisp on the other side.
Remove to a plate or tray lined with paper towels. Repeat till all the vadas are fried.
Enjoy while still piping hot with a side of cilantro chutney, onion thokku (or, if I’m being totally honest, ketchup) and a steaming cup of tea.