Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tapioca - What it is depends on where you are

If you ask someone from North America what the word tapioca means to them, they'd be likely to tell you that it's a pudding-type dessert, white and creamy and full of little transparent gelatinous balls. They are also likely to either love it or hate it; there's really no neutral ground when it comes to this dessert. For those who hate it, those little transparent balls bear a all-too-close resemblance to fish eyes.

If you asked someone from Singapore or Hong Kong the same question - what is tapioca? - they'd tell you instead that it's  the "bubbles" in bubble tea. These bubbles can be teensy or enormous, they can be highly-flavored or just sweet, they can be green, blue, pink or violet, but they are what makes bubble tea bubble tea.

For people in northeastern Brazil, tapioca is something entirely different. It's a flat griddle-cake similar to a pancake or better yet a crepe, white, chewy and without much flavor, which is rolled or folded and filled with any number of sweet or savory fillings, like crepes are. Some favorite fillings are grated coconut and grated cheese, carne de sol, banana and cheese, or simply butter.

At the end of all that questioning, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the confusion is probably just some sort of linguistic mixup - that these different foods really have nothing to do with each other except similar names. But you'd be wrong - in all these food cultures, and many more around the world that use tapioca, it is essentially the same ingredient, just formed and handled in different ways.

Manioc plant
Tapioca is one of the end-products that are extracted from a tropical tuber, native to Brazil, called manioc, cassava or yuca in English and many other things in other languages. (See earlier Flavors of Brazil post "Manioc's Many Names" for more manioc nomenclature). Depending on what part of the manioc plant is used and how it is treated it can resemble a potato, a thick, floury paste, or a gritty yellow grain. Tapioca is just one more of the many shapes and forms of manioc.

There are essentially two kinds of manioc - one which is poisonous in its natural state due to the presence of cyanide and one which is not toxic (more information here). Tapioca is one of the products that results from the process of detoxificaiton of poisonous manioc - a process that dates back to pre-Columbian Indian cultures in the region of the Amazon River Basin.

Before poisonous manioc can be safely eaten, its cyanide must be removed. This is done by peeling and grating a manioc tuber, and then squeezing all the liquid out of it using a type of wicker basket designed specifically for this purpose. The liquid that is extracted from the root is allowed to stand for a day or so until all the starch settles to the bottom of the container. That starch is tapioca, which is now safe to eat. The liquid, however, it still toxic and must be boiled for a very long time, up to several days, before it is comestible. In Brazil's Amazon region, that liquid is called tucupi and it plays a vital role in the cuisine of that area.

But it's the starch that's left behind that we're concerned with here. It can be spread out and dried to make a starchy powder, or it can be processed into those balls of tapioca put in pudding or in bubble tea. It can be used as a flour in all sorts of baked products, and since it has no gluten is commonly used in baked goods for people who are gluten-intolerant.

Here in northeastern Brazil the word tapioca is used to refer to the starchy flour itself and also to the crepes which are made from it and which are a popular snack and street food. In our next post, we'll take a look at the tapioca of Brazil's northeast.

11 comments:

  1. very informative! thanks for taking the time to write this.

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  2. Three things you didn't mention, which in my experience are the main ways manioc is consumed:

    mandioca frita: like french fries but more flavorful and a bit fibrous

    farinha: coarsely ground manioc to sprinkle (or dump) on your beans and rice

    farofa: like a stuffing made with farinha

    ReplyDelete
  3. Once I ate a tapioca with grounded Brazil-nut in Manaus - tastes even better than the ones with coconut.

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  4. Do you know how to make the tapioca pancakes like the one in the picture above?

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