I’m not sure what made me think of tapioca recently. My mother would make what we called “tapioca” and most of the world apparently called “tapioca pudding” at irregular intervals through my childhood. We had Jell-O far more often and what we referred to as “pudding” (chocolate, vanilla, and butterscotch, in that order of frequency) nearly as much. There wasn’t much to the preparation of these desserts; they came in a box, warm water was added and then for a maddening length of time (for a child) we had to wait for them to “set.”
Tapioca appeared less often. The reason, not surprisingly, is that it takes a little more effort to make tapioca. Elise at SimplyRecipes.com took me right back when she said that her parents (plural!) did not make it often because it required continuous stirring. Looking at her recipe I can see that my mother might not have wanted to spring for all the milk and eggs that go into it.
As a child I had no idea where tapioca came from, although as an adult I became vaguely aware that it was ultimately derived from a plant. That plant is the cassava (Manihot esculenta) and more specifically the cassava root. While it is native to the Caribbean and northern South America, the cassava was brought all over the world by the Spanish and the Portugese after they noticed that the tribal peoples of the New World depended heavily on the root as a source of carbohydrates (there is nearly nothing else in it). It has long since been integrated into the cuisines of Africa, south Asia, southeast Asia, and the Phillipines.
The cassava is a small shrub that has either green or red branches. The green-branched variety harbors high levels of a glucoside that metabolizes to cyanide, and the tubers of the red-branched variety, while more benign, must also be processed before being used as food. The name, originally tipi ‘oca, is from the Tupi language of Brazil. It combines three words in that language that describe the process by which the starch is extracted from the root: ty means “juice,” pya means “heart,” and oca is the verb “to remove.”
Once the starch is isolated from the root it is made into flakes, sticks, or “pearls.” My mother bought the pearls, and they didn’t entirely dissolve away in process of making the pudding, which gave it a characteristically (and to me appealingly) lumpy texture. (I was and remain across-the-boards consistent in this textural preference, opting for lumpinesss of oatmeal over the smooth of Cream of Wheat every time.) The sticks are actually four-sided, short and stubby. Traditionally they were brown, but they now are available in all kinds of bright colors, as are the pearls.
I think what made me think of tapioca as an adult was seeing it occcasionally in the list of ingredients in some processed foods. It is frequently used as a thickening agent in pie fillings to prevent the fruit from collapsing out of a slice when the pie is still warm. EverythingPies.com notes that while cornstarch or arrowroot are usually adequate, if a lot of sugar is added to the pie this will introduce more moisture and you might want to replace half the added cornstarch with tapioca. The cassava root extract is apparently the thickener to use when you really serious about thickening.
Another common tapioca based “food” is bubble tea, a fad that I confess has completely passed me by. Originally a Taiwanese confection made from black tea, milk, large tapioca pearls, and honey, it has since diversified to include green instead of black tea and a pretty much infinite variety of sweeteners. Although I havn’t seen it stated anywhere, it would seem that “bubble” tea is a corruption of boba tea. Boba is one of the Chinese words used to describe the tapioca pearls.