Let’s Dish! Let’s Talk About Tapioca

By MaryAnn Miano

Imagine eating food made from a violently poisonous plant! That is what we do every time we eat tapioca pudding. The roots of most varieties of the plant that tapioca is derived from are bitter and can contain enough cyanide to be toxic. Yet, by the time we put it into puddings, tapioca is as mild and healthful as any food.

Centuries ago, the Indians of the Amazon somehow discovered the secret of this strange food. Tapioca comes from the big, juicy roots of the cassava or yucca plant, which is a perennial shrub with long, narrow, starchy tubers. The plant spread by way of South American Indians in canoes, migrating northward into the Caribbean and later with help from Portuguese ships from Brazil to Africa. The beauty of the cassava is that it requires very little labor to cultivate, yet it produces more calories per acre than any other food plant while keeping in the ground until needed.

Poison is removed by pounding, scraping, and cooking. The vegetable is then boiled or baked like a potato, made into flour for breads, and employed to thicken soup. The meal or flour is sprinkled into most any dish. The Indians called the flour “manioc” or “Mandioca,” and told a pretty story about how they first came to use it as food. “Mani” is the word in the Tupi-Guarani language for boy, and “oca” the word for “hole.” The legend goes that once the son of a king was buried with great ceremony. Later, when, according to their custom, the people went to dig up the boy’s remains, there in the hole wasn’t a body, but a great starchy root instead. This root, in one form or another, has become a chief food of people in Brazil and in many other tropical lands. The word tapioca refers to the starch produced by processing the root.

The legend does not tell how the Indians who found this root learned how to remove the poison, but we do know the milling process they used along the Amazon. The Indian women scratched the root all to shreds with a roller, the face of which was set with fearsome prickles gathered from a certain palm tree. Then they placed the pulpy mass into a press worked by a long level held down with great stones. The press was worked by a mule, which walked around and screwed down a crude wooden plunger.

But even after as much of the poisonous juice as possible had been pressed out, the pulp was still far from fit to eat. So the next thing the Indians did was spread the pulp out on large frying pans, often six feet across, and build a brisk charcoal fire underneath. As the mass heated up, little girls stood over it and constantly raked the pulp to keep it from burning. It turned perfectly white and looked like wheat flour, but the finished product was always much coarser than wheat. In fact, when the heat had driven off the last of the poison and the tapioca was perfectly dry and ready to pack and use, its granules are about the size of radish seed.

The Brazilians use this starchy food, freed from its poisonous juice, in many ways. They make it into cakes and bread, they put great quantities of it into soup, and they like to eat it dry, sprinkled over fish or meat. The bitter cassava from which it is made has been introduced into many warm countries, and in some places it is grown widely for the trade in tapioca with other parts of the world.

Pearl tapioca, which looks like beads and is often used to make tapioca pudding, is tapioca in one form. Granulated quick cooking or instant tapioca is convenient for thickening fruit pies. Ground tapioca flour or starch thickens pies, puddings, stews, and sauces without leaving behind any swollen beads. And when we add it in soup or in light, fluffy pudding, little do we think of how much trouble it was to change it from nearly-fatal poison to a fine and delicious food!
Enjoy this recipe of the month for National Tapioca Pudding Day, July 15.


Some small pearl tapioca requires overnight soaking in water. If your package has that requirement, reduce the milk in the recipe to 2 ½ cups from 3 cups.

• ½ cup small pearl tapioca (in the baking section of the grocery store, do not use instant tapioca)
• 3 cups whole milk
• ¼ teaspoon salt
• 2 eggs
• ½ cup of sugar
• ½ teaspoon of vanilla

1. Combine tapioca, milk, and salt in 1 ½ quart pan on medium high heat. Stir until boiling. Simmer 5 minutes, uncovered at the lowest possible heat, adding sugar gradually.

2. Beat eggs in a separate bowl. Mix in some of the hot tapioca very slowly to equalize the temperature of the two mixtures (to avoid curdling).

3. Return eggs to pan with tapioca. Slowly bring mixture barely to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and stir several minutes at a low simmer, stirring constantly until you get a nice thick pudding consistency. Cool 15 minutes. Add vanilla. Serve either warm or chilled.

Note: For a more light and fluffy, but still rich, tapioca pudding, separate the eggs. Use the egg yolks to stir in first to the pan with the tapioca. Once the pudding has become nice and thick, beat the egg whites in a separate bowl to soft peaks. Remove the pan of tapioca pudding from the stove, fold in the beaten egg whites into the pudding.