Have you ever wondered about those tapioca balls sitting in your tiger milk tea? Do you know that these gluten-free chewy balls can come in various shapes? So, when making your boba, you can have squares instead of spherical ones — though clearly, creating a straw for that may be an issue.
But don’t let that startle you. In this post, we’re giving you a comprehensive bird’s eye view of the different types of tapioca. Plus, we’re showing you all the details you need to get the kitchen going: what the stuff is made of and how it became central to the rise of boba.
Finishing this guide should help you choose which tapioca is best for any occasion — whether it’s for your fave savory dishes or sweet drinks. That way, you satisfy all the palates of the people with whom you share a tapioca-enriched mouthwatering ensemble. Yours including. Read on.
What is tapioca made of?
Right off the bat, know tapioca is not synthetic. It’s all-natural.
Tapioca is a starch extracted from the roots of the cassava plant (Manihot esculenta), also known as manioc or yuca. As a tuber, cassava originated from Brazil, and the name tapioca itself is derived from the word tipi'óka (meaning: coagulant), a Tupi word from the natives of the South American country.
Here are two facts to show how tapioca and the cassava plant play a significant role in the planet's survival:
- Today, though Nigeria is the largest producer of cassava, the U.K. grows the plant, producing tonnes yearly.
- Tapioca is a staple food for millions of people in the tropics.
- Cassava is an essential diet for about half-a-billion people in the developing world.
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What’s more, tapioca is a nutrient-rich gluten-free diet. In short, it’s perfect for gluten-sensitive individuals such as people suffering from celiac. In that sense, you can consider it as a medicine food.
In addition, tapioca is low in sodium lowering your risk for heart-related diseases identified with overconsumption of salt (e.g., high blood pressure). The unique starch is gentle on the stomach and would trump flour as it’s easy to digest.
In the kitchen, tapioca has a strong gelling power (now you know why it’s called a coagulant). By default, this starch has been used as a thickening agent for both savory and sweet foods.
The advantage is tapioca is not affected by a freeze-thaw cycle and retains its gelling prowess without breaking down. Small wonder tapioca is a sought-after thickener in many ice cream recipes.
The Different Types of Tapioca
No doubt, tapioca’s gel-like feature has made this starch a favorite ingredient in the food industry. Thus, it has been used as a gluten-free thickener, a baking ingredient, and a gelling agent.
So what are the different types of tapioca, and how do you differentiate them? Let’s dive in.
Types by Shape
Care must be undertaken to process the cassava root into tapioca. These roots contain toxins, specifically linamarin, a cyanogenic glycoside that converts to cyanide to become poisonous. It follows then that you should not eat cassava root raw or process tapioca from cassava root without adequate expertise.
Upon processing, cassava root is ground to a pulp using a mill — either hand-powered or diesel-powered. This is how it turns into powder form.
Once in powder form, tapioca starch is mixed in boiling water, achieving a kneadable consistency in the process. And you know what happens with this dough? Like in baking bread, you can shape this dough into any shape you want. Commonly, it’s shaped into:
So if you’re wondering why your boba pearls are spherical, the answer is because they’re shaped that way. Pearls, by far, are the most in-demand variant for bubble tea and other sweet snacks.
Nobody is stopping you from ordering square-shaped tapioca on your next tiger milk tea, but you just have to find a suitable straw to bring them all up from the boba tea bottom for consumption.
Referred to as pearls or boba, spherical tapioca comes in all sizes. But the most common found in your bubble tea is typically five to 10 millimeters in diameter, about 0.2 to 0.4 inches. Or somewhat between a marble and a pea.
Smaller than that, you have mini boba — something you may find easier to drink, thanks to its diminutive size.
Types by Flavor
By default, tapioca lacks flavor. That’s beyond its starchy profile.
But that could be a distinct advantage. Think of it as a painter would a blank canvas. That means it can acquire any taste depending on what substance you soak the tapioca dough in. It can end up being sweet, spicy, or even savory.
A standard method, for instance, to sweeten tapioca is to soak it in sugar syrup. You can transfer your boba pearls into a sugar syrup container. And after 10 minutes, voila! You’ve gotten yourself sweet tapioca pearls that are perfect for your boba.
By default, your tapioca pearls will also be affected by the flavor of your tea. In the process, those QQ balls absorb the milk and the tea flavor, allowing them to take the flavor of whatever tea they’re in.
Some of the most common flavors for tapioca pearls are:
As you can see, tapioca pearls can have just about any flavor you want. You just have to know what your palates are exactly longing for.
Types by Color
Another question frequently pops up is why tapioca is black. How can one make black pearls? Well, the answer is simple.
Usually, when you buy tapioca, they’re in opaque form. As such, you need to cook them in boiling liquid to use them. It can take hours. But don’t worry; just follow the instructions here to get it done right.
Once cooked, tapioca pearls turn from opaque to translucent. At this point, these balls absorb the character of the liquid you put them in. So, cook them in dark brown sugar if you want to color them black.
Another method to color them is by adding food coloring when cooking them. In that sense, you can have any color you want to gain a little sensory play and attract children.
Picture 2: Tapioca pearls in various colors.
Brown sugar, however, has become the go-to method to color tapioca pearls. Not only do you make them look dark, but also you enhance their taste with sweetness.
NOTE: Popping boba is not tapioca at all. It’s a fruit-flavored seaweed extract that pops in your mouth when consumed making it a favorite ingredient in bubble tea these days — especially with children.
How tapioca became part of bubble tea?
So how did tapioca become a key ingredient in bubble tea?
There are many versions of how tapioca got entangled into boba, but we can trace the roots of the iconic drink to the island of Taiwan in the 80s.
As hot as the summers of the island nation, bubble tea was already a rage during those times. It had the initial signature ingredients we know today:
(1) it was made either with black or green tea
(2) it was sweetened with sugar syrup
(3) it was shaken through the ice to produce that bubbly look. But it didn’t have tapioca.
Then, tapioca balls were already a fave ingredient in fen yuan, a sweetened tapioca pudding typical to the country. But as fate would have it, it took time for tapioca and bubble tea to join together and for the drink we know today to materialize.
Out of curiosity or inspiration, a product development manager, Ms. Lin Hsiu Hui, poured those tapioca balls into her iced Assam tea. The resulting taste immediately made her and everyone in her room avid fans. She reported it to her tea shop owner boss, Liu Han-Chieh, who’s widely credited as the originator of the drink. And the world was never the same.
Ever since that day, tapioca and bubble tea have become inseparable. So, anywhere on the planet today, when people say boba tea, they mean the drink with tapioca sitting at the bottom.
A Little More about Tapioca
The food industry has gained much traction with tapioca. Over time, different tapioca products have emerged. Identifying one from the other is a must if you want to make the most of your kitchen experience. Here are some salient features you need to remember.
What makes tapioca flour a healthy choice? Simply put, it contains no cholesterol or fat whatsoever. So, it’s a great choice if you want to lose weight or are watching your diet against saturated fat or cholesterol. Plus, tapioca contains very minimal sodium.
Now, if you’re wondering if bubble tea and tapioca are healthy choices, the answer lies in the ingredients you place in the drink. For one, too much sugar certainly can pose a risk. But that’s not to say boba isn’t healthy. No, sir. Indeed, you can have many health benefits from the quintessential drink from Taiwan.
Wrapping Things Up
The healthy chewy goodness that’s tapioca has made these balls perfect for your bubble tea. Even better, they give numerous customization options from shape to color to taste, which has become essential in the rise of boba. All you need now is to source the best tapioca balls to get going.