What Is Tapioca? Is It Boba?

Tapioca makes me smile because it’s one of those foods that is just as fun to say as it is to eat. It’s also a food that is divided by generations. Younger folks hear “tapioca” and think of those little boba balls floating around in boba tea. Older people hear “tapioca” and think of that tapioca pudding that was always at the end of the salad bar for some reason. But what is tapioca? What is tapioca made of? Where does tapioca come from? Let’s get some answers to these questions by tapping into some tapioca!

What is tapioca?

Tapioca is a starch that comes from cassava root. Cassava is a plant (kinda like a potato plant) that is native to Brazil but has spread across South America. Tapioca flour is a popular ingredient with cooks and bakers as it can be used to thicken or bind ingredients. It can also be used as a gluten-free substitute for wheat. Tapioca is pretty much all starch with little other nutritional value.

What is tapioca made of?

Tapioca is made of cassava root. But you can’t just grind up a whole cassava root and get tapioca. That would actually make cassava flour. To get tapioca, you have to grate the starchy innards of cassava root into a pulp, then wash and squeeze that pulp. Let the liquid dehydrate and then grind up the dried remains into tapioca powder. That’s how you make tapioca! You can typically find tapioca in flour, flake, or pearl form. Tapioca flour is also sometimes called tapioca starch.

What are tapioca pearls?

A tapioca pearl is an edible, translucent ball made of tapioca flour mixed with hot water and usually sugar or brown sugar. Super small tapioca pearls can be used for tapioca pudding. Large tapioca pearls are used in bubble tea. That’s right, tapioca pearls are boba. Just sweeten those tapioca pearls and drop them in some tea! 

Sometimes boba is made with sago pearls rather than tapioca pearls. Sago pearls come from sago palm trees. Those trees take a while to mature which makes sago more expensive to process that tapioca. Ever since bubble tea’s popularity exploded in Asia in the 1990s, boba has been mostly made with tapioca pearls since it’s so much cheaper.

What does tapioca taste like?

Tapioca by itself is very plain and nearly flavorless. That’s why it’s often used as a thickening agent. It tastes like whatever you mix it with. For example, if you soak tapioca pearls in some honey, sugar syrup, or molasses, you’ll get a nice, sugary, sweetness bomb—perfect for boba tea. Or, if you want to be a total rebel, you could soak tapioca pearls in soy sauce and dashi for a strange savory take on chewy boba. Your call!

About the Author

Will Morgan

Will Morgan, a freelance contributor to Sporked, is an L.A. based writer, actor, and sketch comedy guy. Originally from Houston, TX, he strongly believes in the superiority of breakfast tacos to breakfast burritos. Will traveled the world as one of those people that did yoyo shows at elementary school assemblies, always making a point to find local and regional foods to explore in whatever place he was, even in rinky-dink towns like Tilsonberg, ON. Will spends his birthdays at Benihana’s. Let him know if can make it.

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