We’re likely best acquainted with tapioca in the form of tapioca pudding, or as the gummy pearls swimming at the bottom of our bubble tea, or as something we stir a spoonful of into pie filling.
But what is it, really, and what does it do?
Tapioca is made from starch of cassava root—a.k.a. yuca. And actually, you can eat yuca on its own, prepared in much the same way you’d prepare any other root vegetable. As Lindsay-Jean writes in this piece, cooked yuca has a sticky texture you’ll recognize: Tapioca, its progeny, shares it. It’s that stickiness that gives bubble tea and pudding their distinctive textures.
Tapioca is made by extracting starch from the cassava root: The roots are processed to separate out the plant’s naturally occurring cyanide, and what results is the purified starch. You can purchase that starch as is (called tapioca, cassava, or manioc flour or starch—three names for the same thing), or as flakes, sticks, or pearls in a bevy of sizes. The last of these—the tapioca pearls—is so familiar that you, like I, might think of them as being tapioca’s truest if not original form.
Where to Find it
You can buy flour/starch, instant tapioca, and small pearls at nearly any grocery store. If you want large pearls or boba (large, black, sweetened pearls used for making bubble tea), you may have to order them online or go to a specialty store or Asian grocery. Once you have some on your shelves, it’ll stay good in a tightly sealed container for about a year.
How to Use It
- Use tapioca (either instant or flour/starch) as a thickener for pies, soups, gravies, or puddings. Simply whisk a bit into whatever you’d like to thicken. And it retains its texture even when frozen, which makes it a good option for thickening ice creams, soups, gravies, or anything else you might pop in the freezer—and it keeps whatever you’re thickening glossy (and doesn’t dull the colors or make them chalky at all, like flour or cornstarch might).
- Bubble tea! You’ll want black tapioca pearls (often called “boba”) for bubble tea. They get their colorfrom brown sugar—which also gives them their flavor. (If you use regular tapioca pearls, your pearls won’t taste like much of anything at all.) Buy the extra-wide straws, too—sucking pearls through a straw is half the fun.
- Tapioca pudding gets its name and its distinctive texture from tapioca pearls, large or small. It’s as comforting and nostalgic as rice pudding.
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