Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Story Behind Tapioca

Bubble Tea (a name clearly simplified for the American market) is one of my all time favorite drinks. I can even remember the first time I had one...(dreamy memory sequence cue):
I was with a friend in Chinatown (DC) and he recommended that I try this quaint asian drink which he had recently discovered. I agreed, he relocated the place, I paid, and was then handed a nontransparent, white styrofoam cup, with a plastic lid and a colorful straw that was wider than my thumb. I rounded my lips and took a deep sip of what my tastebuds registered in this order: smooth, creamy fruit--WTF?! squishy, round, unidentifiably strange, string of balls which had the texture of large fish eggs!!! This of course signaled the reflex and chain reaction order to SPEW SPEW SPEW! I spat the drink out in front of me and my friend reacted with unfriendly laughter.
Friend: "Hahaha...Haven't you ever had tapioca before?"
Me: "No...what's tapioca, caviar injected with growth hormones?"

His explanation was basically tapioca was what's in that drink, it's tasteless, but texture rich, with a side of throat tickling. I took another sip reassured that it wasn't something fishy and found the drink incredibly delicious.

For those of you haven't yet enjoyed the abrosial mmm-ness of this drink or are just so culturally poversihed that you don't even have a clue what this drink even is, I, oh helpless reader, will try to describe it to you.

There seems to be two variations of the drink. The more popular one has the liquidy texture of a smooth milky tea, the taste of a fruity drink (usually its just one fruit like strawberry, coconut, mango, etc.), and gummy black, pearl-shaped orbs of tapicoa floating and swirling weightlessly around at the base of the drink.

The other is simply a change in liquidy texture, its more related to the icee family of fruit drinks, but its not quite as sugar food dye sweet as the icee you are used to getting at the cinema.

Anyways that established I have always been curious as to what, exactly, this tapioca substance was. Where did it come from, how was it discovered, was it a fruit, a plant, a synthetic creation of biotechnology, I wasn't sure and never really investigated these questions, because they weren't exactly questions at the forefront of life's other mysteries so they were relegated to the back files of my mind, but today I came across an entry addressing my aformentioned questions in a random book I picked up in the library by Stimpson called A Book About A Thousand Things

Here was the entry:

"Tapioca, a word of South American Indian origin, is the name applied to a vegetable food obtained from the starch roots of the poisonous plant known as bitter cassava, which is indigenous to tropical America but now widely cultivated in other parts of the world. According to Latin American tradition, the food vaule of cassava was accidentally discovered by a Spanish explorer lost in the jungles of Brazil. He had heard from the Indians that the sap of the cassava plant was highly poisonous, and preferring a quick death by poison to a slow one by starvation and fever, he ate a bowl of soup prepared by boiling cassava roots in water. Instead of dying he lived to tell the world how this pleasant and digestible food saved him from death. As a matter of fact the milky juice of the bitter cassava is highly poisonous and cannot be eaten in its natural condition without considerable danger, but the application of heat, as the explorer discovered, destroys the poisonous property."

Stimpson then goes on to describe how tapioca is extracted from the cassava root (or what is more commonly known as Yuca)

"After being thus separated from the constituents of the root the moist starch is spread on iron plates and exposed to heat sufficient, with the aid of constant stirring, to partly rupture the granules and cause them to agglomerate into the irregular pellets which, when cooked, become the hard, translucent tapioca used in puddings and soups [and bubble teas]."

Upon learning this new information the Yuca root has now elevated its status to become the quintessential food item I would request if I were marooned on an island, because not only is it delicious when dried out, but it also tastes good (after the requried process) in a blended fruit drink (and any postcard will show you that islands are known for being coconut plentiful).

I'm definitely going to challenge my usual Bubble Tea serving waitress' knowledge on tapioca the next time Im in her store, because I doubt she knows the true story behind those yummy gummy, squishy chewy, black and gooey, pearly balls*...

*(I think I can say with assurance that I am probably the first person to ever write that sentence.)

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