Tapioca pearls appear in the form of small opaque balls of tapioca starch, which when soaked in water double in size and become large and transparent chewy balls with a jelly-like consistency. They are made from the root of the cassava (also known as yucca or the manihot esculenta) plant and have proven to be a very versatile ingredient used for sweet and savory dishes as well as a base for toothpastes and to make alcohol amongst other things.

Although currently grown all over the world, tapioca pearls are native to the West Indies and Latin America and are thought to have been harvested by the Mayans. Commonly, the most widespread use for tapioca pearls is in the form of various desserts and in the famous bubble or boba tea.

• The preparation of tapioca pearls

To prepare the tapioca pearls for eating or to be used in drinks they have to be soaked in water first, usually for around 15 – 20 minutes. This action restores  their moisture, doubles or sometimes triples their size and gives them their chewy jelly-like consistency.

• Tapioca pearls in desserts

Tapioca is a very popular ingredient used in Asian cuisine and especially desserts. One such dessert is the Thai version of Tapioca pudding which is similar to a rice pudding. Thai tapioca pudding often makes use of green tapioca pearls. The green color is attained by the pearls being colored and flavored with pandanus leaves, and instead of using dairy milk Thai tapioca pudding makes use of coconut milk and cream.  The result is a very green looking pudding which resembles caviar.

An Indonesia they have a very similar dessert to Thai tapioca pudding, but call it kolak. The pudding is also popular in the western world, where a mix of sugar, milk, eggs, vanilla and tapioca pearls are cooked to make a pudding.

• Tapioca pearls for bubble tea

Bubble or boba tea – originates from Taiwan, China but was made popular in Japan and then became a big hit in Canada, parts of the US and other parts of the world. The signature ingredient in bubble tea is the use of tapioca pearls. The sweet cool tea is typically comprised of tea blended with fruit juice syrup or milk with large tapioca pearls. The tea often comes with large straws so that the pearls can be sucked up through the straws. Although originally, bubble tea comprised of hot black tea, honey, condensed milk and, last but not least, cooked tapioca pearls.

• Savory dishes

Their use is not just limited to sweet dishes or drinks but to savory dishes as well. They can practically be used in any dish as they are so versatile and take on the flavors of the ingredients they’re cooked with.

In the state of Kerala in southern India, tapioca pearls are used to make a well-known fish curry. The pearls are boiled and cooked with a mixture of spices. Also, in Sri Lanka and Mauritius, the pearls are boiled with a salsa of chili and onions and sometimes coconut sambol.

Some people use the pearls as a thickening agent for gravies or sauces and they can be used to thicken sweet as well as savory sauces.

• Different colored tapioca pearls

Sometimes the pearls can be seen in different colors such as green or black. The original color is a creamy white; however other colors are made by the addition of other ingredients. For example, black tapioca pearls which are sometimes used in some bubble teas are made by mixing the pearls with dark brown sugar. Green tapioca pearls are liked in Thai cuisine and are made by mixing the pearls with pandanus leaves.

• Toothpaste

Used by natives in the West Indies to clean the teeth with and until today the pearls are still used as a base for some toothpaste.

• Alcohol

In the West Indies, the pearls were used by the natives to make alcohol.

The uses for a simple starch such as tapioca pearls are many and varied. They are used all around the world for sweet and savory dishes as well as for non-edible products such as toothpaste.