Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

  • About

tapioca is a starch extracted from the cassava root (Manihot esculenta). It is used as a thickener and to make puddings and other sweets. Tapioca “pearls” are obtained by heating the moist starch that remains in the water after cassava roots have been washed and pressed to produce flour. The pearls can be heated a second time to pop like corn, or they can be rolled into different sizes. See cassava.

In the sixteenth century tapioca spread from Brazil to Africa, the Philippines, and throughout Southeast Asia, but it was introduced into Europe as a commercial instant thickener only in the mid-nineteenth century. Professional and household kitchens alike soon adopted this novelty food item, which allowed cooks to make custards without eggs. In 1854 Henriette Davidis, Germany’s most important cookbook writer, published a recipe for tapioca for invalids in her Praktisches Kochbuch (Practical Cookbook). Europeans considered tapioca a light, easily digestible food, although the sticky pudding resulting from boiling its grains with sugar, milk, and a pinch of cinnamon owed its soothing effect more to the ingestion of the sweetened carbohydrates than to any medical virtue.