Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What is Tapioca, anyways?

Tapioca: most of us have consumed it at one point or another without thinking twice about its origin. I remember eating tapioca pudding as a child thinking that those little gel balls were the seeds of a tapioca plant. I spent a great deal of my life living in tapioca ignorance. That all changed when I started drinking boba (or bubble tea) drinks three years ago. Boba is a tea-based drink that is often served with large, tapioca balls at the bottom of the glass. At this point in my life, I consider myself a boba connoisseur, and rightly so, I think, as I have consumed a lot over the years and sell boba straws and tapioca pearls online.

My relationship with boba prompted me to learn more about tapioca, the crux of the drink. Tapioca is actually the starch of the cassava root, a starchy tuber native to South America. Most of us encounter tapioca in the form of pearls, which are little balls of starch. Tapioca flour, the amorphous form, is often used widely as a thickening agent. It is especially valued because it does not denature at subzero temperatures.

We really don't use tapioca for more than pudding in the US. However, tapioca is used in a wide variety of applications internationally. In Brazil, for example, tapioca is made into a dessert by simmering pearls with sweetened wine. In Southeast Asia, it is made into crackers and bread.

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