KOTA KINABALU: Eating sago worms for the first time can be a nightmarish experience, but many quickly acquire a taste for them.
Whether served alive, stir-fried, cooked in soya gravy or drowned in a bowl of hot congee on a cold day, the larva of the sago palm weevil has come a long way since its debut in the Pulau Tiga Survivor Island game show in 2000.
This wriggly worm, known to locals as “butod”, has become a commercial hit and is one of Sabah’s tourism food brands.
Butod has been popularised by the Sabah Tourism Board as an ingredient in dishes for those looking for adventure in exotic food. They are also used in team building challenges such as in eating them raw.
Once gathered for free by indigenous farmers for their own consumption, a single worm can now sell for as high as RM2.
Sandra Sebastian, who runs a stall in Papar, told FMT this was because the worms were fast becoming rare.
She buys them from local farmers for up to 50 sen a worm and sells them to passing motorists at a profit.
“But usually there will be hardly any supply coming on rainy days,” she said.
Sago worms, which can grow to the size of the human thumb, can be found in sago trees, many of which grow in the Papar, Penampang and Kuala Penyu districts.
Butod is said to be high in protein and fat. When eaten, its chewy skin bursts to release a creamy texture.
A Penampang resident, Terence Dolinting, said rapid development in his district had greatly reduced the number of sago trees.
“Butod used to be sold cheaply,” he said, “but I recently bought a worm for RM2.”
He said some restaurants selling authentic Sabah food in Kota Kinabalu were of late finding it hard to get their supplies.
However, Quinie Chin, who works at a Kota Kinabalu restaurant that serves butod as one its highlights, said she had no problems with supplies because she could depend on a number of suppliers.
“The only trouble is that I get less during the rainy season and the price tends to fluctuate. If a supplier raises his price, I will usually source them from other suppliers to keep the cost down.”
She said her restaurant usually needs about 500 sago worms a month for sushi, pizzas and salads.
She agreed with those who would consider food served with butod as bizarre, but said the worms were a hit with many of her patrons, including tourists. “We see them daring each other to eat the live worm.”