Until recently, about all I knew about tapioca was that it was sweet, blond and delicious. But then I became serious about the dessert. I learned the plant tapioca comes from is a cousin of the potato. I learned tapioca could, in certain situations, become a colloid. And I learned how to make it.
I didn't make the instant, quick-as-a-wink type of tapioca. That is as simple as stirring up some instant pudding. Instead I made the old, slow, takes-forever type called "pearl tapioca." It gets the name from the round pieces of tapioca that resemble pearls.
I always thought tapioca, being off-white and fluffy, was a relative of rice or maybe Rice Krispies. It turns out to be a kin to the potato. I found this out by reading "On Food and Cooking" by Harold McGee (Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984, $30) which gives scientific explanations of what happens to food when we cook it.
TC The book said tapioca is made from the starch of a manioc plant, which, like the potato, is a tuber. Tubers are vegetables whose idea of a good time is go underground and get swollen.
At harvest, somebody yanks the manioc out of the ground, soaks it in water, then shakes liquid from the plant onto a hot plate, where these starchy drops form "pearls." The pearls then are put in boxes, and boxes are put in groceries, usually in the pudding aisle.
That is where I found my box of pearl tapioca a few weeks ago, when I was sent to the store by my wife to get groceries for supper.
I was proud that I had found the stuff. But instead of being grateful that I had brought her pearls, my wife seemed irritated that I had bought the slow-cooking or "wrong kind" of tapioca. There was no pudding that night.
The box of tapioca sat there in the pantry, undisturbed, until my wife left town on a weekend business trip. Then on a Saturday afternoon, I was prowling around the pantry looking for a way to reward myself for coping with the kids, when my eyes fell on the box. I ripped it open.
At first the pieces inside didn't look like pearls. They looked more like BBs, or little marbles, the kind of ammunition the kids had been shooting in their slingshots. Following instructions on the box, I soaked the tapioca in water. It was supposed to soak for an hour or two. It ended up soaking overnight.
That is because right after I put the tapioca in water, there was some sort of domestic crisis. A kid needed a slice of pizza, or his bike fixed, or stitches or something. I forget. I also forgot about the tapioca until the next day.
The instructions on the box of tapioca said that the soaked pearls had to be cooked in salt and milk. I checked the fridge. We were almost out of milk. So using an old parental technique, bribery, I got the 11-year-old to go to the store. I slipped the kid $5, told him if he brought home a gallon of milk, he could use the change to buy a copy of Mad magazine.
Besides milk, the tapioca-making process required a double boiler, lots of eggs, sugar, vanilla and a fair amount of standing at the stove, stirring.
As I stirred, I watched the tapioca move through the heated milk. The little pearls were sliding around like otters down a snowy hill. It was fascinating. It was a colloid. That is what the textbook "On Food and Cooking" called it, explaining that the term refers to the suspension of very small particles in another substance.
I could have stood over the stove all afternoon, letting that colloid roll. But events prevented it. My wife returned home from her business trip, bearing crockery from an outlet. Then a couple of neighborhood mothers dropped in to retrieve their sons from the weekly water gunfight being held in our backyard. And, finally, my mother called from Kansas City. I tried to impress her, telling Mom that as we spoke, I was making tapioca the hard way. She said, "Why don't you just use instant?"
Shortly after that, I relinquished my stirring spoon to my wife, who whipped egg whites and vanilla into the mixture, finishing the tapioca making.
I had a bowl for dessert that night. I had more later to reward myself for returning our rented videotapes to the store. I even had some for breakfast Monday morning.
Not everyone appreciated the tapioca. My kids didn't like it, saying it felt funny in their mouths. About the only thing the nutrition books I scanned could say in tapioca's behalf was that it is "highly digestible."
I don't care. It gave me comfort in a difficult time. It taught me a new word, colloid. And it has provided me with a new form of home entertainment, colloid-watching.
So even though tapioca is considered a kin to the tubers, for me it is a pearl at any price.