National Tapioca Day is dedicated the starch that is extracted from Manioc, otherwise known as ‘Cassava’. This plant is most commonly known as the source of the translucent beads in Tapioca pudding. But while this is the most commonly known use of this substance, it has cultural significance around the world. It’s origins can be found in Brazil, where the cassava plant is called the mandioca, and it’s extracted starch is called Tapioca.
One little known fact about the Tapioca starch, is that when it’s extracted from the green branched variety of the plant, it is the source of a potent cyanide based poison, and must be processed to remove this before it becomes edible. Once this process is completed it is processed in different ways, which produces the spheres, flakes, or sticks.
Tapioca pudding is an odd looking treat relatively common in the western world. With it’s signature white color and the translucent and mysterious pearls that give it it’s well known texture, it is a form of pudding instantly recognizable to anyone who has encountered it before. One of the most common ‘mysteries’ of this treat is what, exactly, those pearls are within it. To the British Child, it is not uncommonly known as frog spawn a bit of a tribute to the clumps of amphibian eggs it clearly resembles.
Fear not! There are no frog eggs in your tapioca pudding, and the mystery of it’s contents is, in fact, answered right in the name. Those pearls are a carefully molded form of starch extracted from the cassava plant, actually being comprised of flour from this self-same plant. It’s origins can be traced back as 1875, it’s first mention being made in Cassell’s Dictionary of Cooking. It was in this text that the first definition of Tapioca appears, as well as it’s suggestion for inclusion in puddings.
Tapioca day is a wonderful time to try out different recipes and cuisines from around the world that utilize this incredibly versatile substance. In places like Colombia and Venezuela, the traditional flatbread known as Arepa is often made with tapioca flour rather than cornmeal, and judging from the Caribbean name for them, casabe, this method probably predates the use of cornmeal.
Tapioca is often used as a thickener for different dishes, being found in gravies, soups, dumplings and stews. It is also used in the brewing of alcohol, with varieties of it being available from all over the world. In Brazil you can find tiquira, kasiri heralds from Africa, and masato is a flavorful tapioca based liquor from Peru.
National Tapioca Day gives you the opportunity to broaden your culinary horizons, and try a new spin on domestic dishes using this substance. With a little research you can find flavors from all over the world. In the Congo you’ll even find it being used for fish dishes, eaten with rice and plaintain paste to bulk out the dish.
A dish made with Tapioca pearls that’s growing in popularity in the western world comes from Taiwan. In the early 2000’s Bubble Tea parlors started popping up all over the world, providing this unique and delicious drink to a whole new clientelle. The flavors are delightful, and there’s a satisfying texture to be found when you bite down on the often chewy ‘bubbles’ of Tapioca.
Let National Tapioca Day serve as a reminder that there are great undiscovered ingredients for dishes that can add some variety to your menu. Cooking Tapioca is just the start! You can find it showing up as crisps, served in a manner similar to french fries or fried potato wedges, and even grated like coconut over a dessert. Get out there and try out new Tapioca based treats on National Tapioca Day, and find yourself on a culinary adventure!