The story of tapioca is a truly global one. It was first domesticated in Brazil over 2,000 years ago and then it eventually became very popular in both Asia and Africa as it’s used in a variety of ways from soup thickener to starching shirts.
A new craze has been taking the world by storm, however, and I’m sure you are aware of it. It’s called bubble tea. You may also know it by other names like milk tea, boba, pearl milk tea or pearl tea.
This trendy drink, which originates from Taiwan in the ’80s, is now found in cities and towns around the world from San Francisco to Berlin.
What makes this drink so special are the chewy, and often colorful and flavored, balls or “pearls” at the bottom of the drink.
While these boba balls are perhaps the most internationally famous, the other form of tapioca pearls are used in other ways as well.
Let’s see what tapioca is, the differences between tapioca pearls and boba, as well as how to make them.
- 1 What is Tapioca?
- 2 What are Tapioca Pearls?
- 3 What is Boba?
- 4 What’s the Difference Between Tapioca Pearls vs Boba?
- 5 Is Tapioca Good for You?
What is Tapioca?
Tapioca is a starch that’s derived from the root of the cassava plant (also known as yuca or manioc). It’s extracted by grinding up the cassava root and then squeezing out the starchy liquid from it. The water is then allowed to evaporate and the leftover powder is tapioca. While the exact process can vary around the world, the general concept is the same.
You shouldn’t confuse it with cassava flour though. Though it comes from the same plant and is also a white powder, tapioca is the remnants of the starchy liquid that is extracted from the cassava flour, which is the ground cassava root.
After the tapioca powder has been produced it can be then made into other forms. These other forms are flakes (goma de mandioca), pearls, and boba. The latter two are a bit tricky because all boba are tapioca pearls but not all tapioca pearls are boba.
In other words, boba are a type of tapioca pearls (more on that later). And the tapioca flakes are primarily only used in Brazilian foods, particularly a crepe-like food that they call just “tapioca”.
Since it’s just a starch taken from a root, tapioca has little nutritional value. It’s pretty much just purely carbohydrates that contain very little or no protein, fiber, or nutrients.
However, despite its poor nutritional value, it’s become increasingly popular as a gluten-free alternative to wheat and other grains.
In addition to being used as a wheat substitute, it’s also used to make flatbreads, deserts (some may be familiar with tapioca pudding in the USA), and as a thickening or binding agent in soups or burgers respectively.
What are Tapioca Pearls?
Tapioca pearls are small and translucent balls of tapioca, made by combining water with tapioca starch and usually sugar.
The plain, unflavored form are usually white and can vary in exact size. Generally, very small balls or pearls are used in tapioca pudding whilst the bigger ones are used in bubble tea.
Tapioca pearls don’t have to be unflavored, though. You can add whatever flavors you would like. One of the reasons they’re so great to use in bubble tea is because they don’t have much of a taste by themselves and they can be flavored in many ways like honey, watermelon, strawberry, or orange.
How to Make Tapioca Pearls at Home
It’s super easy to make your own tapioca pearls at home. The three ingredients that you will need are water, tapioca powder, and sugar. You can even forgo the sugar if you like, but I would definitely recommend using it. In particular, I think the best sugar to use to Taiwanese brown sugar, or as they call it, black sugar.
The reason it’s so good is that while it has a similar taste to the brown sugar we are familiar with within the United States, it has a deeper flavor. This is because while it also has molasses, as US brown sugar does, it also has other minerals like potassium, iron, and calcium among others.
However, normal brow sugar or white sugar can do just fine if that’s all you have.
Now, let’s get into what you need and how to actually make tapioca pearls.
- ¼ cup water
- 5 tbsp sugar of choice
- ¾ cup of tapioca powder (plus a small amount for dusting)
Preparing the Dough
- In a saucepan, combine the water and sugar and bring it to a boil over medium heat. Stir occasionally to help dissolve the sugar.
- Add ⅓ of the tapioca powder and stir it while you add it. Continue stirring until it forms a sticky dough. It’s fine if it’s lumpy.
- Remove the pan from the heat and add the rest of the tapioca powder. Keep stirring it until it’s pretty well mixed and most of it comes off of the bottom of the pan.
- Take out the dough mixture and let it cool so you don’t burn your hands but not so long that it’s cold.
- Then knead the dough to fully incorporate the mixture so it’s homogenous. If it’s too dry then you can add a little bit of cold water. Or, if it’s too wet then you can add a bit more tapioca powder.
Forming the Pearls
To make the pearls you can pull off small pieces of dough and roll them into ⅓ inch diameter balls. Alternatively, you can roll the dough into a long ½ inch diameter cylinder or cylinders and then cut off small cubes and roll it from there. Also, if you don’t want to hassle with rolling them you can also leave them in an unconventional square shape if you like.
They don’t need to be exactly a ½ inch diameter. They can be rolled into the size and shape that you desire.
If they’re too hard to make into a ball then you can wet your hands first. It will help them become more malleable.
If you decide to roll them out first then you should dust in tapioca powder before cutting and rolling it.
After you roll them into balls (or cut them), coat them in a thin layer of tapioca to prevent them from sticking together.
Lastly, you will need to boil them.
Boiling the Pearls
- Bring water to a rough boil – roughly 10x the amount of water compared to the amount of tapioca pearls you are preparing.
- Before you put the tapioca balls into the water use a sift to shake off the extra tapioca powder from the balls.
- Put the tapioca balls into the boiling water. Stir continuously to prevent them from sticking.
- Turn the heat down to medium-low to maintain a gentle boil and cook for 15 minutes. This will allow them to cook about 90%.
- Turn off the heat and then cover and let it sit for another 15 minutes.
- Drain the tapioca pearls and rinse with cold water.
And there you have it! They’re ready to be used in any way that you like. Keep them in cold water to stop the cooking and help them to firm up. They lose their chewiness quickly so use them within 1-2 days.
What is Boba?
Boba is very similar to tapioca pearls. However, ‘boba’ refers to both the (generally larger) tapioca pearls that are used in bubble tea and also the drink itself.
Boba is also braised in a syrup that is made with brown sugar and water. This is why when you see packages to buy premade boba it often looks kind of like a package of caviar, with balls in a dark syrup.
How to Make Boba at Home
To make boba you will follow the same steps as the tapioca pearls and then you will braise the pearls in a syrup to finish the transformation. So for brevity, let’s continue from where we left off after the tapioca pearls are finished.
Braising syrup ingredients
- 1 cup water
- ½ cup brown (or black) sugar
- Combine the water and sugar in a small pot but big enough to allow for the addition of your prepared tapioca pearls.
- Bring to a boil.
- Add the prepared tapioca pearls and reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer for 20-25 minutes or until the braising liquid becomes thick and syrupy.
- That’s it! If you’re making bubble tea then they’re ready to be added to your tea!
What’s the Difference Between Tapioca Pearls vs Boba?
You might still be a bit confused about what the specific differences between tapioca pearls vs boba are so let’s clear that up.
Tapioca pearls are a combination of water and tapioca powder into small balls. They usually have sugar added to them, but not always.
Boba on the other hand always has sugar (traditionally brown or black sugar) and sometimes other flavors in them and is then braised in the syrup. It also can refer to the bubble tea drink itself as well.
So, in short, the tapioca pearls only refer to the balls while boba is both a specific type of tapioca pearl and is also a drink.
Is Tapioca Good for You?
There’s a bit of controversy regarding the health benefits (or health consequences) of tapioca. While there is really no nutritional value in tapioca, the benefits are pretty much only in that it’s good for people with common allergies and is gluten-free. This means that it can be a good option for those on restricted diets.
There are more reasons that it’s not so good for you, particularly if you’re diabetic or you are trying to lose weight as it’s pure carbohydrates and has a concentrated amount of calories.
Additionally, it has been reported that poorly prepared cassava can result in cyanide poisoning since there are trace amounts of a toxic chemical called linamarin that is converted into hydrogen cyanide in the body.
In conclusion, tapioca is fine for your health if it’s consumed in moderation and it’s properly prepared.