Tapioca is a virtually flavorless starch commonly used as a thickening agent or flour. Tapioca is available in flakes, sticks and pearls (balls), which are soaked in water before cooking, as well as a fine or coarse powder. It is an important alternative to other flours and thickening agents because it is gluten free and can be eaten by those with allergies or celiac disease. In the United States and Britain it is best known as the ingredient in the popular tapioca pudding. Tapioca is extracted from the root of the cassava shrub, which is native to South America and is now grown around the world. Let’s find out how tapioca is made.
How is tapioca made?
One of the traditional methods of producing tapioca comes as a by-product for making manioc (cassava) flour and this is still used today in many cases. The root is first treated (see below) to remove the toxic cyanide found naturally in the root. It is then ground into a pulp by hand or with a mechanical mill. This is then dried by squeezing the liquid from the mixture. Traditionally this is done with a special device known as a tipiti, which looks like a Chinese finger trap. This liquid that is removed in this process is collected and when the water is evaporated the remaining fine powder is tapioca. This can be further processed to create the different forms of the product.
Did you know?
The root from the cassava shrub with green branches must be processed to remove the toxin, but the shrub with red branches can be processed directly without treatment to remove the cyanide.
Cassava root is also used to produce plastic bags that are biodegradable. These bags break down in about 1 year compared with regular plastic bags that break down in thousands of years. Research is currently ongoing into the use of the root for biofuel production.