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How to use Tapioca Pearls

If you think tapioca only comes in pudding form, think again. This highly versatile starch from the plant Manihot esculenta is used world wide for everything from delicious drinks to main dishes and even as a base in toothpaste, biodegradable bags,  and as a binder in paints and pharmaceuticals.  In India, it is used in Kannada, a dish during fasting among Hindus. In the West Bengal region of India, tapioca pearls are cooked into a delicious fish curry. In Southern India, tapioca chips are popular. In Sri Lanka, tapioca or manioc is boiled with a chili-onion mixture. In Los Angeles, you can buy tapioca crackers imported from Indonesia. 

 Tapioca goes by many names:  cassava, manioc, mandioca, aipim, macaxeria, boba, and yuca to name just a few.  Sixty percent of the world’s supply comes from Thailand with Brazil and Nigeria also in contention. The word tapioca actually comes from the word “tipi’oka” referring to the process that makes the starch edible. 

Most of us have bought boxes of tapioca pearls. They’re great for making puddings or as thickening agents in fruit pies. They look just like their name – tiny white pearls. If you don’t cook them properly, you wind up with little lumps of starch. But if you use them in the right way, delicious dishes are yours to be savored. 

Bubble tea is a beautiful, creamy, cold (often pastel-colored) slushy drink that provides sweetness and a chewy texture. It’s fairly easy to make and involves boiling a mix of seven cups of water and one cup of tapioca (boba) pearls for 20 to 30 minutes. Then they are allowed to sit for an additional 20 to 30 minutes with the heat off. The pearls are then drained and thoroughly rinsed and stored in an airtight container. A simple syrup of two cups of water and two cups of sugar (boiled) is poured over the pearls. Now you are ready to make a beautiful drink. Simply pour the mixture over ice in a glass and add cream, sugar, and cold black tea to your taste. Make sure to serve with an extra wide straw capable of sucking up the pearls. 

If you would rather eat your pearls instead of drinking them, try making a creamy tapioca pudding. There are many possibilities but the basic pudding consists of one cup sugar, three tablespoons of pearl tapioca, two cups of milk, and three eggs, and a teaspoon of vanilla. The pearls are soaked overnight and then added to almost boiling milk.  Egg yolks are beaten with the sugar and added. Then the whites are beaten to a nice stiffness and are used to top the pudding. You can add other flavors like coconut, apples, nuts, or chocolate. The pudding is baked at 400 degrees for about 15 minutes. This is just a basic method. The recipe internet sites are full of varieties of tapioca pudding. 

If something tastes good, it has to be bad for you?  There have been claims that tapioca can cause tropical pancreatitis – originally thought to be due to a fungal infection in the plant but now suspected to be a rare granulomatous reaction to the proteins in tapioca.  In fact, the more likely conclusion found by medical researchers is that the correlation between tapioca intake and pancreatitis in third world countries does not exist and that the symptoms may be due to malnutrition. 

So relax and enjoy your tapioca pearls. They’re beautiful, delicious, and oh so versatile. In fact, they’re real gems in the cuisine of the world.