The plant is naturalized in Florida, but it is chiefly cultivated in the West Indies (Jamaica and St. Vincent), Australia, Southeast Asia, and South and East Africa. Because of this, Napoleon supposedly said the real reason for the British love of arrowroot was to support their colonies.
The term arrowroot sometimes is used to refer to any starch, not specifically arrowroot starch. In particular, Florida arrowroot was a commercial starch derived from Zamia pumila, harvested from the wild in Florida. Most starch sold today as arrowroot actually is tapioca. Kudzu flour has also been described as arrowroot.
Arrowroot starch has in the past been quite extensively adulterated with potato starch and other similar substances, so care is needed in selection and buying. Pure arrowroot, like other pure starches, is a light, white powder (the mass feeling firm to the finger and crackling like newly fallen snow when rubbed or pressed), odorless when dry, but emitting a faint, peculiar odor when mixed with boiling water, and swelling on cooking into perfect jelly, which can be used to make a food for vegetarians, very smooth in consistency—unlike adulterated articles mixed with potato flour and other starches of lower value which contain larger particles.
Arrowroot is used as an article of diet in the form of biscuits, puddings, jellies, cakes, hot sauces, etc., and also with beef tea, milk or veal broth, noodles in Korean cuisine, or boiled with a little flavoring added, as an easily digestible food for children and people with dietary restrictions. Arrowroot makes clear, shimmering fruit gels and prevents ice crystals from forming in homemade ice cream. It can also be used as a thickener for acidic foods, such as oriental sweet and sour sauce.
The lack of gluten in arrowroot flour makes it useful as a replacement for wheat flour in baking. Like other pure starches, however, arrowroot is almost pure carbohydrate and devoid of protein, thus it does not equal wheat flour nutritionally.
Arrowroot thickens at a lower temperature than does flour or cornstarch. It is recommended to mix arrowroot with a cool liquid before adding to a hot fluid. The mixture should be heated only until the mixture thickens and removed immediately to prevent the mixture from thinning. Overheating tends to break down arrowroot's thickening property. Substitute two teaspoons of arrowroot for one tablespoon of cornstarch, or one teaspoon of arrowroot for one tablespoon of wheat flour.
Tapioca does not have the same gelling and nutritional properties.
If you eat a large quantity of arrowroot it may cause stomach pains and very bad gut illnesses.
In the early days of carbonless copy papers, arrowroot, because of its fine grain size, was a widely used ingredient. After an economical way of centrifugally separating wheat flour was devised, arrowroot lost its role in papermaking (see arrowroot paper).