What Is Tapioca?
Tapioca is a food that is made from the starchy roots of a large plant that grows in the warm countries of the world. The plant is called manioc or cassava in English. Tapioca is a starch extracted from cassava root.
In making tapioca, the long, thick roots are ground into pulp. The pulp is mixed in water and strained to separate the starch particles from the root fibers.
The pure starch is then dried on hot iron plates. During the drying, the starch particles stick together to form the little pearly white grains used in tapioca pudding and as a thickening for some soups and sauces.
This species is native to the North Region of Brazil, but spread throughout the South American continent. The plant was carried by Portuguese and Spanish explorers to most of the West Indies, and continents of Africa and Asia, including the Philippines and Taiwan. It is now cultivated worldwide.
In Brazil, cassava is called mandioca or aipim while its starch is called tapioca, a word derived from the word tipi’óka, its name in the Tupí language spoken by natives when the Portuguese first arrived in the Northeast Region of Brazil. This Tupí word refers to the process by which the cassava starch is made edible.
Tapioca is one of the purest forms of starch food, and the production varies from region to region. The cassava plant has either red or green branches with blue spindles on them.
The root of the green-branched variant requires treatment to remove linamarin, a cyanogenic glycoside occurring naturally in the plant, which otherwise may be converted into cyanide. Konzo (also called mantakassa) is a paralytic disease associated with several weeks of almost exclusive consumption of insufficiently processed bitter cassava.
In the North and Northeast of Brazil, traditional community based production of tapioca is a by-product of manioc flour production from cassava roots. In this process, the manioc (after treatment to remove toxicity) is ground to a pulp with a small hand- or diesel-powered mill. This masa is then squeezed to dry it out. The wet masa is placed in a long woven tube called a tipiti.
The top of the tube is secured while a large branch or lever is inserted into a loop at the bottom and used to stretch the entire implement vertically, squeezing a starch-rich liquid out through the weave and ends. This liquid is collected and the water allowed to evaporate, leaving behind a fine-grained tapioca powder similar in appearance to corn starch.
Commercially, the starch is processed into several forms: hot soluble powder, meal, pre-cooked fine/coarse flakes, rectangular sticks, and spherical “pearls”. Pearls are the most widely available shape; sizes range from about 1 mm to 8 mm in diameter, with 2–3 mm being the most common.
Flakes, sticks, and pearls must be soaked well before cooking, in order to rehydrate, absorbing water up to twice their volume. After rehydration, tapioca products become leathery and swollen. Processed tapioca is usually white, but sticks and pearls may be colored. Traditionally, the most common color applied to tapioca has been brown, but recently pastel colors have been available. Tapioca pearls are generally opaque when raw, but become translucent when cooked in boiling water.