Tapioca Pudding, Boston-Born

Photo: Wallula Junction/Flickr

Recently, I picked up some tapioca from the grocer’s refrigerator in those little plastic pudding cups. I brought ‘em home, tossed a few blueberries on top of one and had a yummy snack. But after thinking about it, I was left wondering what it was, elementally, I had eaten. Hail the Internet! I went online to find an answer to an age-old question: “What are those little lumps in my tapioca?”

What I found was a blogosphere filled with decadent home-made tapioca recipes so distinctive and indulgent I succumbed. In addition, I came across a fascinating culinary history lesson AND an answer to that ‘lump conundrum’ palatable and friendly enough to put my mind at ease.

But! Before we get to the good stuff – the recipes, and there are many- let’s get at that elephant in the room. Or, in this case, that pea under the mattress. The lumps.

Many of us have grown up with stories about what tapioca pudding is. I myself barely made it through grade-school without a mind filled with wild ideas on the subject–fish eggs, gulp, or worse: fish eyes (shudder). Fortunately, none of those stories was true. Tapioca comes from the cassava plant (its root stock), which grows indigenously in tropical regions. The cassava roots are a starch with very little protein and no gluten. The starch from the plant is processed into flakes, sticks, flour or tapioca pearls, those little lumps we’ve come to know so well.

Traditionally, tapioca is white in color, becoming translucent as it cooks. However, many companies have begun coloring their tapioca an array of colors, including black and brown. The most popular use for tapioca in the Western world is the sweet milk-based pudding we’ve grown up with. What I did not realize was the pudding had a local history associated with it. According to the MINUTE® Tapioca Company, our traditional American pudding recipe originated in Boston in 1894, in the home of housewife Susan Stavers. She was taking on boarders–one of whom was a sick sailor. Amidst his belongings were cassava roots carried home from a sea journey. To soothe and heal him, Stavers made the sailor a warm, sweet pudding from the roots, eventually grinding them in a coffee grinder. It was a hit. News of her comforting, sweet dessert spread and was picked up by a newspaper publisher, John Witman, who bought the rights to her process. The Minute Tapioca Company was started, and cooks have come up with their own variations of the sweet and creamy dessert ever since.

Now, for pudding recipes. I’ll share two.

Photo: Nicole/Pinch My Salt

This ‘Lemon Vanilla Tapioca Pudding’ recipe came from The Gourmet Cookbook and was prepared and tested by the author of Pinch My Salt. She used real tapioca pearls, substituted vanilla beans for extract and, in the midst of a family loss, explains the comfort she found in preparing and cooking the pudding.

Another gorgeous (and decadent) recipe is ‘Tapioca Pudding With Honey, Lavender, Orange and Vanilla,’ a Betty Crocker recipe tested and shared by Chef Tess Bakeresse. While preparing the pudding, Tess discusses her raisin debate with a friend. To add, or not to add? Oh, such existential questions for such an unassuming dessert…

And, by the way, those bubbles in your Bubble Tea? Well, you guessed it. Those are tapioca pearls in there…

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