Pleasing textures define a fascinating food

Tapioca is a tasteless, odorless food that is popular all over the world

Posted: Thursday, July 17, 2008

Most foods are interesting because of their flavor, aroma and appearance. Their enjoyment is a multidimensional sensual experience, from sniff to sight to swallow. Then there are textures, pleasing or challenging. Many of our favorite foods add the charm of memory to the party in our mouth, immediately evoking our very first nibble, old rituals, or the comfort of childhood.

Take away flavor, aroma and appearance but keep all the rest. Add an urban legend. What do you get? Tapioca.

This tasteless, odorless food is mysteriously popular all over the world in countless manifestations. While some prefer it in bubble tea, most of us usually experience it in pudding, where it is suspended as small, soft-but-chewy, smooth roly-poly balls. Those beads are so intriguing that children have been known to become speechless trying to capture and maybe count them before they slide down the throat. Even without flavor or aroma, looking like sick caviar, tapioca is fascinating.

It comes from cups, bags and little boxes on supermarket shelves, rather than reminding you of anything in the produce section. Yes, it is a processed food by necessity. Tapioca is made from starch that is extracted from the root of the bitter cassava or manioc plant, native to South America and the West Indies. It might have been first harvested by the Mayans, who recognized that the cyanide also extracted from cassava roots made an effective toxin for their blow darts. Minus cyanide, the roots are a staple food in the diets of many tropical cultures. The extraction process is too complicated to try at home without risking accidental poisoning, best left to the tapioca factory. There are some less tasty industrial uses for processed cassava, and there is even a tapioca urban legend.

Or true tale? In 1972, a cargo ship full of tapioca caught fire and nearly burst at its seams when water used to extinguish the fire combined with its extreme heat turned the ship's hold into a tapioca bomb.

Tapioca is prepared by soaking and then cooking until expanded to several times its dried size. Do it in an open pot!

Tapioca has been part of the North American diet at least since first appearances in 19th century cookbooks. Its qualities as a thickener made it an ideal medium for other flavors and ingredients without the use of fresh milk or eggs, which were not always available. One recipe dated from 1894 features tapioca soaked only with water, then poured over par-baked stuffed apples and left for another hour in the oven. A modern idea that can serve as either dessert or side dish features quick-cooking tapioca baked with pineapple, sugar, cinnamon and eggs until set.

It can be prepared with liquids like coconut milk or soy milk, with or without eggs. Cook tapioca beads with soy milk, cocoa powder, cinnamon and raisins. Or simmer with coconut milk, lime juice and honey for delicious alternative desserts.

If you prefer tapioca prepared traditionally with milk and eggs, you can still make it interesting. It's soothing when warm, refreshing when cold. Layer it with fruit, berries, cooked rhubarb, jam, or anything else you want. Mix tapioca pudding with chocolate and marshmallows in a microwave-safe container and melt.

Or, when they least expect it, bean your friends with raw tapioca beads fired from a soda straw or other effective pea-shooter. However you choose, enjoy your tapioca!

• Andrea Mogil can be reached at

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