When you see the word “tapioca”, what image comes to mind? Back in England we pronounce this word ‘tappy-OAK-a’ and it doesn’t have a great reputation – for many people it brings back memories of bad school dinners:
In more recent times, these tapioca ‘pearls’ have become associated with Bubble Tea – a bit more trendy perhaps, but still quite weird and the resemblance to amphibian eggs is undeniable.
As is often the case, Brazil does things a little differently. Here we call it ‘tappy-OCK-a’ and it is a popular street food, prepared in little stalls on street corners and markets all over Brazil.
What is Tapioca?
Before we go any further we should probably take a closer look at this crazy stuff. Tapioca is starch that has been extracted from mandioca (AKA cassava, manioc, yuca, etc). Mandioca is native to Brazil, but has spread all over world and today is a hugely important international crop, providing basic sustenance to around 500 million people.
Looking at those chunky looking roots, it’s hard to imagine that they are related to the weird jelly balls isn’t it? Apparently the ‘pearls’ are created by passing the moistened starch through a sieve at high pressure (who came up with that idea?). Here in Brazil tapioca is most commonly sold as a flour.
Brazilian style Tapioca
OK, enough of those weird jelly balls. The Brazilian street food that I mentioned earlier is something like a pancake or tortilla. Tapioca starch is mixed with a little water, then passed through a sieve to give a fine, slightly moist powder. The powder is then put into a small frying pan (without any oil or butter) and cooked for several minutes. Once the powder has fused into a disk, the tapioca is flipped, pancake style, cooked for a little longer and then turned out onto a plate.
This is when things start to get fun! Without any addition, tapioca would be rather a dull affair, but these things are versatile. The classic savoury filling is probably simply cheese. The classic sweet flavour (yes, of course there’s a sweet flavour – this is Brazil!) is condensed milk with grated coconut. But there are some other great combinations – ham and cheese, carne seca with catupiry (a salty cured beef with gooey creamy cheese) and many more.
So, do you want to see someone making these things? OK, here you go:
She has seven on the go at one point - impressive right? Watch the assistant adding a ton of condensed milk at the 55 second mark – did I mention that (most) Brazilians love leite condensado? Also check out the carne seca, tomatoes and cheese at 1:25 – yum!
If you’d like to get a bit of a closer look at the way to make this delicious snack, then this is a rather more instructional video. Finally, let me leave you with some close-ups of the finished product. When’s lunch?!