A friend talked me into trying tapioca for the first time at Thai Bistro some years back.
Until then, I'd turned up my nose at tapioca. I couldn't shake the image of that little red box of Kraft Quick Cooking Minute Tapioca, which always struck me as a Southern gramma's food. Pablum-like geriatric rice pudding. Ick.
I've since learned that tapioca comes from a root, and is formed into tiny starch balls.
Starch balls. What's not to love about that?
It took a few tentative bites of tapioca at the Thai Bistro for me to get beyond the dessert's translucent, slightly chewy beads.
It helped that the tapioca was served hot with a huge scoop of vanilla ice cream in the middle.
I moved on to sample and adore other Thai tapiocas, such as those from the Thai Cafe (a place that has killer coconut ice cream). But I kept returning to Thai Bistro's tapioca. In fact, you might say I have a bit of an obsession with its tapioca. (I also love Thai Bistro's fresh veggie spring rolls.)
I love Thai Bistro's tapioca so much that I often think I should just skip the meal and move straight to the tapioca.
Not to digress too much, but I could now kick myself that I didn't take the opportunity during July's Cooking at the Cascade event to ask Naj Phutsangdee, Thai Bistro chef and owner, the secret to his delicious tapioca. He could have shared it with all of us then while he was on stage demonstrating Golden Pouches.
Twice I've pressed him for tapioca details, and each time he patiently explains the process: Put the tapioca beads in water, stir over medium heat, stirring, stirring the whole time. The beads should become somewhat clear. Make a lot and it'll be at the ready whenever a tapioca craving hits. That's when you add coconut milk and/or a scoop of vanilla ice cream to it, if you want. (And who wouldn't?)
Sounds easy enough, doesn't it?
A word about tapioca pearls. The tapioca used in this recipe below is called "pearl tapioca" and it's found in Asian stores, such as the Lao Market in Redding at 2660 South Market Street (next to Racha Noodle, across South Market Street from Kanya Garden Thai Cuisine).
An aside, I love that Redding has the Lao Market. This is the coolest store, filled with all kinds of interesting foods and baskets and cookware and ethnic sauces and pastes and seasonings. It's where I bought some adorable small, yellow candles that I put on my sister's beehive cake.
But if you do buy tapioca in the baking aisle of your local, white-bread grocery store, expect the red-boxed minute-tapioca variety, which is a far cry from the Asian market options. For example, there are the traditional "seed" tapiocas.
And there are even colored tapioca shreds - for lack of a better term.
I didn't love my first attempts at making tapioca. It look unappetizing, like a glue product.
But I discovered that's quickly remedied with coconut milk, and/or ice cream.
After that, it looks just as it's intended: terrific tapioca.
I now realize that tapioca is an acquired texture -- and that not everyone appreciates its mouth-feel - like caviar from a gummy sturgeon.
In fact, my non-scientific observation is that many people don't care for tapioca. For example, friends Kelly and Steve, and husband Bruce and sister Shelly all actually hate tapioca.
No extra spoons for sharing. Oh darn.
I tried a few tapioca recipes from ones I found online, and created the adaptation, below. (No maple or corn syrup, for example, but if you want it, go for it.)
Tapioca1/2 cup seed tapioca beads (found at Asian markets) 1 can coconut milk 4 T. sugar 1/4 t. salt Ice cream to top, if you want - or fruit, like mango
Cover the tapioca with tepid water for about 15-20 minutes, or until the beads have softened and bloated a bit. Drain through a sieve.
In a saucepan over medium high heat place the soaked tapioca with the salt and about 2 cups of water, stirring until it boils.
Still stirring, reduce the heat to medium and simmer for about 10 minutes, adding more water if it looks like it's cooking off too fast, popping or cooking too hot.
Keep cooking and stirring until most of the beads are slightly translucent and soft. (Don't freak if they're not translucent.)
Add the coconut milk and the sugar to the tapioca and blend well.
Serve either hot with a scoop of ice cream, or at room temperature, or even cold, with mango or other favorite fruit.