Tapioca (//; Portuguese: [tapiˈɔkɐ]) is a starch extracted from cassava plant (Manihot esculenta). This species is native to the central-west region of Brazil, but its use spread throughout South America. The plant was carried by Portuguese and Spanish explorers to most of the West Indies and Africa and Asia. It is a tropical, perennial shrub that is less commonly cultivated in temperate climate zones. Cassava thrives better in poor soils than many other food plants.
Although tapioca is a staple food for millions of people in tropical countries, it provides only carbohydrate food value, and is low in protein, vitamins and minerals. In other countries, it is used as a thickening agent in various manufactured foods.
- 1 Etymology and origin
- 2 Production
- 3 Uses
- 4 Regional applications
- 4.1 South America
- 4.2 North America
- 4.3 West Indies
- 4.4 Asia
- 4.5 Africa
- 4.6 Europe
- 5 See also
- 6 References
- 7 Further reading
Etymology and origin
Tapioca is 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 around 1707. This Tupí word refers to the process by which the cassava starch is made edible.
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.
Tapioca predominantly consists of carbohydrates, with each cup containing 23.9 grams for a total of 105 calories; it is low in saturated fat, protein and sodium.  One serving of tapioca pudding contains no dietary fiber, a small amount of oleic acid, and no omega-3 or omega-6 fatty acids.
A casabe is a thin flatbread made from bitter cassava root without leavening. It was originally produced by the indigenous Arawak and Carib peoples because these roots were a common plant of the rain forests where they lived. In eastern Venezuela, many indigenous groups still make casabe. It is their chief bread-like staple. Indigenous communities, such as the Ye-Kuana, Kari-Ña, Yanomami, Guarao or Warao descended from the Caribe or Arawac nations, still make casabe.
To make casabe, the starchy root of bitter cassava is ground to a pulp, then squeezed to expel a milky, bitter liquid called yare. This carries the poisonous substances with it out of the pulp. Traditionally, this squeezing is done in a sebucan, an 8 to 12-foot (3.7 m) long, tube-shaped, pressure strainer, woven in a characteristic helical pattern from palm leaves. The sebucan usually is hung from a tree branch or ceiling pole, and it has a closed bottom with a loop that is attached to a fixed stick or lever, which is used to stretch the sebucan. When the lever is pushed down, stretching the sebucan, the helical weaving pattern causes the strainer to squeeze the pulp inside. This is similar to the action of a Chinese finger trap. The pulp is spread in thin, round cakes about 2 feet (0.61 m) in diameter on a budare to roast or toast.
Thin and crisp cakes of casabe are often broken apart and eaten like crackers. Like bread, casabe can be eaten alone or with other dishes. Thicker casabe usually are eaten slightly moistened. A sprinkle of a few drops of liquid is enough to transform a dry casabe into soft smooth bread.
Tapioca pearls, also known as boba in some cultures, are produced by passing the moist starch through a sieve under pressure. Pearl tapioca is a common ingredient in South, East and Southeast Asian desserts such as falooda, kolak, sago soup, and in sweet drinks such as bubble tea, fruit slush and taho, where they provide a chewy contrast to the sweetness and smooth texture of the drink. Small pearls are preferred for use in puddings. In Brazil, the pearls are cooked with wine or other liquid to add flavor and are called sagu.
Large pearls are preferred for use in drinks. These pearls most often are brown, not white, due to the sugar added and are traditionally used in black or green tea drinks. They are used as various colors in shave ice and hot drinks. In addition to their use in puddings and beverages, tapioca pearls may be used in cakes.
Processing and properties
Processing of the cassava flour into tapioca pearls requires the intermediate step of a product called tapioca grit. Tapioca grit is dried cassava flour that is partially gelatinized so that it looks like flakes or irregularly-shaped granules.
In contrast, making starch pearls uses a different process of roasting. To form the pearls, the tapioca grit can be cut or extruded into the shape of pearls, either small (3mm) or large (6-8mm). The pearls are subjected to a form of heat-moisture treatment, which can extend shelf life up to 2 years.
Tapioca pearls have many unique properties that contribute to texture and mouth feel. Many of these physical properties are a result of its starch composition and are significantly affected by processing. Tapioca pearls are characteristically soft and chewy, with a prominent elastic texture and translucent appearance.
World War II
During World War II, due to the shortage of food in Southeast Asia, many refugees survived on tapioca. The cassava plant is easily propagated by stem-cutting, grows well in low-nutrient soils, and can be harvested every two months, although it takes ten months to grow to full maturity. The plant provided much needed carbohydrates and other nutrients.
Tapioca root can be used to manufacture biodegradable bags developed from a tapioca resin of the plant as a viable plastic substitute. Not only is it biodegradable, but it can be composted, is renewable, reusable, recyclable and sustainable. Other tapioca resin products include reusable gloves, capes and aprons.
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In Brazilian cuisine, tapioca is used for different types of meals. In beiju (or biju), the tapioca is moistened, strained through a sieve to become a coarse flour, then sprinkled onto a hot griddle or pan, where the heat makes the starchy grains fuse into a flatbread which resembles a grainy pancake. Then it may be buttered and eaten as a toast (its most common use as a breakfast dish), or it may be filled or topped with either salgados (salty pastry recipes) or doces (sweet pastry recipes), which define the kind of meal the tapioca is used for: breakfast/dinner, or dessert. Choices for fillings range from butter, cheese, ham, bacon, various kinds of meat, chocolate, fruits such as ground coconut, condensed milk, chocolate with sliced pieces of banana or strawberry, among others. This kind of tapioca dish is usually served warm.
A regional dessert called sagu is also made in Southern Brazil from tapioca pearls cooked with cinnamon and cloves in red wine. The cassava root is known by different names throughout the country: mandioca in the North, Central-West and in São Paulo; tapioca or macaxeira in the Northeast; aipim in the Southeast (especially in Rio de Janeiro).
The fine-grained tapioca starch is called polvilho, and it is classified as either "sweet" or "sour". Sour polvilho is commonly used in dishes such as pão de queijo or "cheese bread", in which the starch is mixed with a hard cheese, usually matured Minas cheese (could be substituted by Parmesan cheese), eggs and butter and baked in the oven. The final result is an aromatic, chewy and elastic kind of bread that is ubiquitous across the country. Toasted cassava flour is mixed into mashed beans to make the dish tutu de feijão.
In Colombia and Venezuela, arepas may be made with tapioca flour rather than cornmeal. Tapioca arepas probably predate cornmeal arepas; among traditional cultures of the Caribbean the name for them is casabe. Throughout both Spanish and Portuguese South America, the tapioca, or yuca, starch is used to make regional variations of the baked cheese bun, known locally as pandebono, pan de yuca, pão de queijo, chipá, or cuñapé, among other names.
The whole unprocessed cassava root also has a number of culinary uses throughout South America.
While frequently associated with tapioca pudding, a dessert in the United States, tapioca is also used in other courses. People on gluten-free diets can eat bread made with tapioca flour (although these individuals have to be careful, as some tapioca flour has wheat added to it). Tapioca syrup is sometimes added as a sweetener to a wide variety of foods and beverages as an alternative to sucrose or corn syrup.
Tapioca is a staple food from which dishes, such as pepper pot, and alcohol is made. It may be used for teeth cleaning, a provision cooked with meats or fish, and in desserts such as cassava pone.
Specifically in rural Cuba early in Spanish rule, tapioca's popularity grew due to the ability of the natives to cultivate the crop and the ease of transport to nearby Spanish settlements, eventually impacting the way land and people were divided in that early imperial era.
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In various Asian countries, tapioca pearls are widely used and are known as sagudana, sabudana or shabudana (pearl sago) or "sabba akki" in Kannada). The pearls are used to make snacks. Tapioca pearls are essential ingredients for Taiwanese bubble tea.
In Southeast Asia, the cassava root is commonly cut into slices, wedges or strips, fried, and served as tapioca chips, similar to potato chips, wedges or french fries. Another method is to boil large blocks until soft, and serve them with grated coconut as a dessert, either slightly salted or sweetened, usually with palm sugar syrup. In Thailand, this dish is called mansampalang.
Commercially prepared tapioca has many uses. Tapioca powder is commonly used as a thickener for soups and other liquid foods. It is also used as a binder in pharmaceutical tablets and natural paints. The flour is used to make tender breads, cakes, biscuits, cookies, and other delicacies (see also Maida flour). Tapioca flakes are used to thicken the filling of pies made with fruits having a high water content.
A typical recipe for tapioca jelly can be made by washing 2 tablespoonfuls of tapioca, pouring a pint of water over it, and soaking for three hours. The mixture is placed over low heat and simmered until quite clear. If too thick, a little boiling water can be added. It can be sweetened with white sugar, flavored with coconut milk or a little wine, and eaten alone or with cream.
Krupuk, or Indonesian traditional crackers, is a major use of tapioca starch in Indonesia. The most common krupuk is kerupuk kampung or kerupuk aci made of tapioca starch. The tapioca starch might be flavoured with minced shrimp as krupuk udang (prawn cracker) or krupuk ikan (fish cracker). The thinly sliced or sometimes quite thick cassava were also sun dried and deep fried to be made as kripik singkong crackers (cassava chips or tapioca chips). A variant of hot and spicy kripik singkong coated with sugar and chili pepper is known as kripik balado or keripik sanjay, a specialty of Bukittinggi city in West Sumatra.
Tapai is made by fermenting large blocks with a yeast-like bacteria culture to produce a sweet and slightly alcoholic dessert. Further fermentation releases more liquids and alcohol producing Tuak, a sour alcoholic beverage.
A variation of the chips popular amongst the Malays is kerepek pedas, where the crisps are coated with a hot, sweet and tangy chili and onion paste, or sambal, usually with fried anchovies and peanuts added.
During religious fasts, sabudana is a popular alternative to rice-based foods. Consumed with curd or milk or prepared as a Khichdi, sago is particularly popular choice during the fasts of Navratri, Ekadashi, 'Ombubachi', Nilshosthi, and Ramadan. Traditionally, tapioca pearls are used as the food for children, elderly and ill people, mixed with milk or water. Faluda, a popular food, is also prepared with curd, ice and other ingredient during summer.
Tapioca pearls are a common ingredient of traditional Indian dishes such as kheer.
Tapioca pearls are used to make Sabudana khichdi, which is commonly eaten during vrat.
Tapioca is widely consumed across the Indian state of Kerala. In some parts of Kerala, it is taken as breakfast or as a staple food. It is boiled (after skinning and cutting it into large cakes of about 6–8 cm (2.4–3.1 in) long or into small 2 cm (0.79 in) cubes) in water till properly cooked, and the water is drained off. Once cooked, it can be mixed with grated coconut, chili, salt, turmeric etc., then steamed and mashed into a dry pudding. This can be garnished in oil with mustard, onion, curry leaves etc. if desired. Tapioca cakes (chendan kappa) are often eaten with simple chili sauce (a paste of Green/Red Chili + Shallot + small red Onion + Garlic + Salt + Oil).
Mashed tapioca is paired with meat or fish curry, especially sardines, as a delicacy in Kerala. Mashed tapioca with dried salted sardines directly cooked on charcoal and green chili is another popular combination.
Tapioca can be stored for longer periods by parboiling and drying it, after skinning and slicing it into 0.5 cm thick pieces. This is called unakka kappa (dried tapioca). Tapioca chips, thinly sliced tapioca wafers, similar to potato chips, are also popular.
In Tamil, the roots of tapioca are called maravalli kizhangu, and are used to prepare chips. Tapioca pearls are referred to as "javvarisi" in Tamil. Most of the delicacies are cooked from this form of tapioca because it is relatively easier to handle than the raw root itself. Tapioca is cultivated more in several districts, providing steady income to farmers. Tapioca can be consumed raw (after removing the skins/outer cover) or boiled for various dishes or snacks.
In Nagaland and Mizoram in Northeast India, tapioca is eaten as a snack. It is usually boiled with a bit of salt in water after skinning it, or snacks are made by drying the tapioca after cutting it. It is then powdered into flour and turned into dough to either make a fired or baked biscuit. In their local dialect, they call it kuri aloo, meaning "wood potato". These chips are eaten by all groups of society as a delicacy. The skin of the tapioca, which is not edible for humans, is kept aside to prepare a food for domesticated pigs.
In Assam, sabudana is also used as substitute diet against boiled rice (bhaat) for the sick elderly or infirm for easy digestion and strength.
It is known as "mangnokka" in Sri Lanka, as well as by its Sinhalese and Tamil names. It is generally eaten boiled with a chili onion mixture called "lunu miris sambol" (type of a salsa) or coconut sambol. At the same time, it is popular to have tapioca pearls prepared as a delicacy. At one time, tapioca pearls were used to starch clothes by boiling tapioca pearls with the clothes.
Tapioca is eaten in the regions of Nigeria and Ghana as a common meal usually at breakfast. Cassava is a staple food in West Africa where it is widely eaten. In Nigeria, cassava is grated and dry roasted into garri, this is eaten by adding water, sugar and or peanuts accompanied by meat or smoked fish. Garri is also made into eba by adding hot water, this is eaten with stew or soup. The Ijebu people of Nigeria make a cold water variant of eba by pounding the mixture with their fist until it becomes homogenous; this is called feshelu. The Egbas of Abeokuta, Ogun State peel, dry and grind cassava into a powder called elubo, which is then made into amala paki and eaten with a jute leaf stew called ewedu.
In Lagos, cassava is processed into tapioca which is cooked in coconut milk and sugar, this can be eaten as a breakfast meal or as a dessert at parties or dinner. This is called mengau.
The Igbos of Eastern Nigeria add palm oil and other seasonings to grated cassava during roasting, a dish called abacha.
Peoples of the Niger Delta extract starch from cassava cooked into a starch eaten with pepper soup.
In Ghana, cassava is peeled, boiled until tender, then pounded in a large wooden mortar and pestle until it becomes homogenous. This is called fufu. It is eaten with soup.
Tapioca is not as widely used in Europe, but several countries use tapioca. In Belgium, small white tapioca pearls are added to clear soups. Tapioca balls are used in French desserts, such as parfaits. A savory snack in the United Kingdom, Skips, is made from flavored tapioca.
Tapioca is also widely available in its dried forms, and is used to make tapioca pudding in some countries.
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