Monday, August 25, 2008

Pearls Before My Swine

Yesterday for lunch, we went to a local Thai restaurant where my daughters enjoyed large quantities of bubble tea. For those of you who don't know bubble tea, it is tea with copious quantities of sugar, cream, often a flavoring, and gelatinous "bubbles," "pearls," or "boba," often wildly colored. It's just the thing that a couple of teenage swine would want to drink!

Of course, the teenage attraction may be that bubble tea is food to be played with. The large centimeter-diameter pearls are to be sucked up a monstrous straw, which leads to numerous games and generally making a mess, something hugely attractive to the teenage psyche!

Forty-something neophyte that she is, my wife had never before encountered bubble tea and was curious what the bubbles were. Before I could reply, daughter number one told her that they were tapioca, though how my daughter came to know so much about it, I haven't a clue. She certainly didn't learn from me: I take my tea straight, unsweetened, unflavored and well, boring. Being lactose intolerant may lead one to boredom in certain areas, I suppose.

My wife gamely tried a glass before deciding that tapioca pearls in tea weren't her thing. I really do think it helps to be a kid to appreciate bubble tea!

You and I, since most of us are way over 40, we have known tapioca all our lives. It was that funny gelatinous stuff made into puddings that we had to eat at all those church potlucks and picnics. You hated it. I tolerated it. Johnny from down the street was the weirdo who couldn't get enough of it. In a word, it's a very familiar product if you're of a certain age.

But what really is tapioca and how does it become pearls? I found these questions running around my mind as the kids were trying to see how many bubbles they could get into a single straw. I've known for years that tapioca comes from the root of the cassava or manioc plant, grown in the tropics. I also know that one form of cassava is a nice source of cyanide and can be harmful to humans unless the cyanide is broken down by soaking it in water. But beyond this, I had no clue how we get from starchy, tuberous root to gelatinous spheres that attract kids everywhere.

The process is really quite simple. The roots are peeled, grated, mixed in several waters, rinsed and centrifuged to yield a wet cake that is then pulverized and screened into a rough flour. This flour is agitated and it starts to clump together and as more damp flour is added the clumps become larger. Do this in a rotating drum and round balls tend to form.

Heat and water make tapioca flour gelatinize, so the round balls are steamed while rotating in a drum, gelatinizing the outer layer. Then they are dried and sorted by size, ready for market. We then boil the dried tapioca pearls until they are gelatinized all the way through and use them to make pudding or entertain our kids.

And now you know.

1 comment:

  1. I'm a huge fan of Bubble Tea, used to go to a place in College Park, Md and buy several...great combinations of flavors, and the bubbles, or jelly, or custard (yes, custard) mixed into the tea is freakin awesome! Word up...bubble tea!