For most Pinoys, the Philippine summer means fantastic ripe mangoes, homemade ice candy, and icy cold sago’t gulaman drinks. I can’t help out with the mangoes and I’ve already posted my favorite homemade ice candy recipe. So this time around, let me share how easy it is to make your own sago’t gulaman drink.
Sago’t gulaman (literally tapioca pearls and agar jelly) or samalamig (cold drink) is to Filipinos what lemonade is to Americans. It’s an icy cold drink enjoyed from roadside stands, traditionally sold in narrow plastic bags with a straw stuck inside. As kids, we’d be told not to drink it because it’s dirty. But we drink it anyway, clutching the plastic bag almost closed near the top, leaving enough space to let the liquid pass through the straw.
During those days, the fancy fat straws from milk tea shops that let you sip whole tapioca balls weren’t in vogue yet, so after draining the liquid from the plastic bag, we’d poke the sago and gulaman bits, sipping just enough to impale them on the straw, then fish them out. It was a tedious process that was eventually eclipsed by the use of plastic cups (gasp!), but ask anyone my age and they’d wax nostalgic about sipping drinks through plastic bags clutched with grimy fingers after playing all afternoon under the sun.
It has been decades since I last drank anything from a plastic bag, but gulaman, I drink any time I feel like it, because it’s so darned easy to make. You don’t really even need a recipe. I’m posting this to prove a point, that it’s so easy, and also to serve as a good starting point if you’ve never made it. Still, the ideal sweetness level is relative, so trust your taste buds and adjust sugar and water levels as you see fit.
The drink starts out with arnibal, a brown sugar syrup that’s watered down to drinkable levels. I usually take one kilogram of brown sugar and 3 cups of water. This is my ideal proportion. You can go as low as 1:1 with the sugar and water, much like you would for simple syrup, but I’ve gotten used to this because it creates roughly 5 cups of arnibal, 4 cups I store undiluted in a liter-sized bottle, and the remaining, I water down for immediate consumption.
I put them together in a thick saucepan, then heat until it melts. You can tell that the sugar has melted properly when you scoop up some arnibal, then let it fall back in the pan. Your ladle shouldn’t have any crystals left. It’s possible to have specks of raw material in, because brown sugar is unrefined. That’s why it’s important to strain your arnibal through a fine sieve or a cheesecloth. Just be sure not to touch the syrup because it’s extremely hot.
You can let this arnibal cool then stash in the fridge for storing. I’ve never tried freezing it, nor storing it in the fridge for months since we usually use it up in a few days time. But I think it would be safe to assume it would last as long as your regular simple syrup.
To make the actual drink base, I take one cup of arnibal, top it up with enough water to make one liter, then add 1/8 tsp banana essence. Some people use vanilla, but for me, sago’t gulaman needs banana essence for that nostalgic samalamig scent.
This is deliberately sweet, so it can stand being watered down by ice. You can cut it with more water if it’s too sweet. Or more arnibal if it’s not sweet enough. Top it with prepared sago and gulaman, or canned Chinese grass jelly. Serve with lots of ice and memories of summers past.