Tapioca is a flavorless, colorless, odorless starch extracted from the root of the plant species Manihot esculenta. This species, native to South America, is now cultivated worldwide and has many names, including cassava, bitter-cassava, manioc, "mandioca", "aipim", "macaxeira", "manioca", "boba", "yuca" (not to be confused with yucca) and "kappa" in the state of Kerala in India. Tapioca is a staple food in some regions and is used worldwide as a thickening agent, principally in foods. Tapioca is gluten free, and nearly protein free. The commercial form of tapioca most familiar to many people is pearl tapioca.
Pearl tapioca is similar to pearl sago, which is used in essentially the same ways. Consequently, tapioca may be called sago, and vice versa. It is rare.
Commercially, the starch is processed into several forms: powder, fine or coarse flakes or meal ("flour"), sticks, and "pearls". Flakes, rectangular sticks, and spherical pearls must be soaked well before cooking, to rehydrate them; they will easily absorb water equal to twice their volume, becoming leathery and swollen. All these products traditionally are white, but sticks and pearls may be colored. The oldest and most common color is brown, but pastel colors are now available. In all its forms tapioca starch is opaque before cooking; after cooking it becomes translucent.
Pearls are made in several sizes, ranging from about 1mm to 5mm. In the United States, 2–3mm pearls are the most common size and are labeled "small". In good quality pearl tapioca, the pearls are very uniform in size, smooth, and few are broken. The pearls must be further prepared before use. For use in tapioca pudding, pearls are prepared simply by soaking them overnight in water. For use in tapioca drinks, they are prepared by boiling for 25 minutes, until they are cooked thoroughly and are chewy, not gummy, then allowed to cool. If not used immediately, they may be kept for hours in a syrup of sugar or honey.
Pearl tapioca is easily confused with pearl sago, an equivalent product made from a different starch.
In Southeast Asia, a common way of preparation is either to cut the root into slices, wedges or strips, fried, and served as a snack, similar to potato chips, wedges and french fries. Another method is to boil large blocks until soft, and served with grated coconut as a dessert, either slightly salted or sweetened, usually with palm sugar syrup. Tapai is made by fermenting large blocks with a yeast-like bacteria culture to produce a sweet and slightly alcoholic dessert. 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.
Commercially prepared tapioca has many uses. The powder is commonly used as a thickener for soups and other liquid foods, and is also used as a binder in pharmaceutical tablets and natural paints. The flour is used to make tender breads, cakes, cookies, and other delicacies (see Maida flour). 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. It is then 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.
In southern parts of India, especially the state of Kerala, a lot of tapioca is consumed, either boiled or cooked with spices. Tapioca and fish curry could be considered official food of Kerala. Tapioca is also available in Andhra Pradesh and costal regions and is called with the name "Karapendalam" in Telugu. Cassava is called "Pendalam" in Telugu. In southern states like Kerala, tapioca is thinly sliced in and made into wafers like salted potato wafers. In the south Indian state of Kerala, cassava, often referred to as tapioca in English, and kappa (കപ്പ) or kolly or maracheeni in Malayalam, is a staple food. Tapioca is used to make a granules like product called chowwary in Malayalam. This is used to make a light porridge by adding milk or buttermilk, recommended for patients recovering from illness.
During World War II's Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, many refugees survived on tapioca, as the plant is easily propagated by stem-cutting, grows well even in low-nutrient soils, and can be harvested every two months. The plant thus provided much needed carbohydrate and protein then.
In Brazilian cuisine, tapioca is used for different types of meals. The tapioca is stirred, drained through a sieve, fried into a tortilla shape, and often sprinkled with coconut. 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 doces (sweet) or salgados (salty) ingredients, which define the kind of meal the tapioca is used for: breakfast, afternoon tea or dessert. Choices range from butter, cheese, chocolate, bananas with condensed milk, chocolate with bananas, to various forms of meats and served warm. A restaurant which specializes in tapioca-based dishes (mostly fillings) is called in Brazil a tapiocaria. 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.
To make casabe, the starchy root of bitter cassava is ground to a pulp, then squeezed to expel a milky, bitter liquid called yare which carries the poisonous substances with it out of the pulp. Traditionally, this squeezing is done in a sebucan, an 8 to long tube-shaped pressure strainer woven in a characteristic helical pattern from 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 then spread in thin, round cakes about 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. Just a subtle sprinkle of a few drops of liquid is enough to transform a very dry casabe into a very soft and smooth bread very similar to the softest slice of a wheat bread loaf, an incredible change in texture. Because of its capacity to absorb liquid immediately, casabe may cause someone to choke, but goes down quickly with a sip of liquid.
In various Asian countries (India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Malaysia) tapioca pearls are usead and can be mistaken for sago pearls also known as sabudana (Sago, also called 'Seeme Akki' in Kannada).Also the pearls (sabudana) are used to make snacks.In Tamil Nadu, a large number of tapiaco industries are found in Attur Taluk, Salem District. Salem City has a marketing center for the sago (known as "javvarisi"). In Kannada, the actual cassava root is called kolli. It is commonly used as a food after fasting (popularly called khichdi) among some Hindus in central part of India (Maharashtra region). In Indian cuisine, the granular preparation of cassava starch is known as tapiaco. It can also be used to thicken puddings. In Tamil, the roots of tapiaco is called Maravallikezangu, and is used to prepare chips. Tapiaco is also used to prepare maida flour. Tapiaco chips are also prepared in parts of South India. While frequently associated with dessert in the Unites States, tapioca is now being used by some cooks in other courses as well. Chef Thomas Keller serves oysters on tapioca. The pairing, called "Oysters and Pearls," is considered Keller's "signature dish."