For years, chewy tapioca balls have risen steadily to the top, making a name for themselves as a most essential bubble tea ingredient. Technically, they are cheaper than traditional sago pearls. However, know that if there was one ingredient that made bubble tea a “superstar” tea, tapioca is top of that list.
You might raise an eyebrow at such a thought. Take note milk tea existed way before bubble tea. The British, perhaps out of need not to stain their china cups, already preferred their black tea mixed with milk since the 17th century (replacing beer as a favored drink of the masses). But bubble tea sprung out of the goodness of Taiwan and into the whole wide world lately, in the ‘80s more specifically.
Today, as boba (Chinese slang for large breasts) tea is making leaps and bounds in conquering people’s hearts worldwide, tapioca balls have also gained unheard-of prominence (more than any other ingredient in a tea drink on the planet). Without a shadow of a doubt, these seemingly magical balls have become the distinguishing mark in thousands of bubble tea worldwide. And we dare say: As chewy and delicious as they become, the tapioca pearls deserve all the rabid attention.
Looking into what makes these balls tick is therefore wise. After all, you really can’t have a true blue nootropic boba without these chewy tapioca pearls adorning the bottom of your tea drink — waiting to be siphoned via your oversize straw to punctuate the drink’s creamy goodness. Read on.
What are Tapioca Balls Made of
It took but one seemingly unpremeditated action of putting in fen yuan (a sweetened tapioca dessert) into a cup of milk tea by one product manager in Taiwan to start it all. As soon as her office mates tasted the tea combination, everyone agreed that such a taste is out of this world. And so was born bubble tea or boba.
And as if by destiny, tapioca in a milk tea ultimately became the signature ingredient in bubble tea. The one thing that separated boba from black tea, green tea, and the rest of all tea types.
So what in the world is tapioca?
Right from the get-go, tapioca balls come from tapioca, a starch extract from cassava roots. Cassava is a root vegetable and is much like potato and yam. Its roots are similar to that of sweet potatoes. You can recognize the cassava plant through its conspicuous almost fan-shaped leaves that resemble that of the castor-oil plant with the exception that they’re deeply parted into five or nine fingers.
The perennial plant is native to South American and grows in tropical and subtropical regions (Asia). It’s a sturdy plant that can grow in poor soil. It has been brought by the Japanese to Taiwan from South America. Also, European explorers introduced cassava in the late 18th century and early 19th centuries in India, Java, and the Philippines from South America. So the plant is a household word in Asia.
The name Tapioca comes from the word tipi'óka, which means “coagulant” in the Tupi language spoken by natives in Brazil around 1500. As tapioca starch from the cassava root is sticky.
Over the years, tapioca has been a staple food in many tropical countries. It is high in carbohydrates but low in vitamins and minerals or protein.
Usually, tapioca balls or pearls used in boba come in 5 to 10 millimeters in size, an improvement of the traditional 2.1 mm diameter tapioca balls used before. Typically, these balls, lacking flavor naturally, take on the flavor of bubble tea. Naturally, tapioca balls are white but are colored to the desired color upon processing.
To create the pearls, starch from cassava is mixed with water until such time that it’s kneadable. It’s not unlike making dough in bread making. Then the tapioca dough is cut and subsequently rolled into balls. For faster results, “gangster method” using a cylindrical twill cloth bag is used. A jerking motion allows the tapioca lumps to gain a more spherical shape.
Also, tapioca is a cheaper alternative to sago pearls, balls made from the starch from tropical palm stems. There’s a hitch to comparing sago and tapioca pearls though. As both are flavorless and can be shaped according to one’s desire, both are interchangeable and indistinguishable from each other.
Moreover, we must bear in mind that bubble tea is a most customizable drink. Thus, there are other pearls aside from tapioca that have been used in bubble tea. Some of these are:
What Do They Taste Like
It must be remembered that tapioca balls are but a product of extensive processing. For one, the original tapioca starch can be kneaded to any form as desired. They can turn into spherical “pearls” or rectangular sticks, for instance.
When raw, tapioca pearls are opaque in general. Once cooked in boiling water, these balls become translucent. Color is added during processing. To give the tapioca pearls their dark color, for instance, brown sugar is used. Naturally, the sugar not only alters the color of the pearls but also their taste.
Typically, tapioca balls are squishy and chewy but lack flavor. So they are soaked in whatever concoction is best to give the desired flavor. For wine-making, tapioca is soaked in red wine and syrup. For bubble tea, it’s usually soaked in sweet syrup to obtain its sweet taste. Generally, it’s the tea that provides the flavor itself.
Take note that tapioca is basically devoid of nutrients. But it’s a ball of carbohydrates and calories. These are what a ¼ cup serving of tapioca contains:
Nutrients in ¼ cup tapioca pearls
Too many tapioca pearls in your system are also not advisable. A tapioca pearl is
edible. But eating too many can lead to indigestion, though rare. A 14-year-old child was hospitalized and an ACT scan showed 100 tapioca pearls inside his stomach.
The same holds true for sugar in your bubble tea. Too much sugar in your drink can lead to disastrous results, nixing the health benefit of tea altogether.
What Are the Flavors for Tapioca
It’s true tapioca pearls come in just about every flavor you want them to have. Depending on the processing, boba can carry an endless possibility of taste.
Flavored bobas are just your run-of-the-mill boba pearls cooked with or coated with flavored syrup. So the flavor of the syrup becomes the flavor of the boba. Some of the most common flavors are:
Over time, a host of boba pearl types became the most marketable. Here’s a look at 5 of the best:
Bubble tea represents the new age governed by Millenials and other new generations of youth today. The drink itself is highly customizable to your needs and wants. But above and beyond, one ingredient stands as the most cherished: boba. And that speaks on how tapioca balls are as essential as can be.