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Tapioca pudding is usually a sweet dessert made with cooked tapioca, but some cultures also serve it as a savory side dish to the main course at a meal. It is different from other puddings because the final product has cooked beads of tapioca in it, which are chewy in contrast with the creamy, thick pudding surrounding them. This ingredient is a starchy, flour-like material that is taken from the cassava root. It usually takes on the flavor properties of the ingredients cooked with it, which can include sweeteners, or fruit, vegetables and spices.
Depending on where they are served, tapioca beads have a number of names, including pearls and boba. They are made by pressing extracted tapioca flour into small, pearl-like spheres, and they come in a wide variety of sizes. Moistened tapioca beads are sometimes dropped into teas, which are enjoyed using a straw big enough to suck the beads through while drinking the tea. Beads used in boba tea can be as large as a marble.
Generally, tapioca pudding is made with beads and flour cooked with milk, eggs and sugar. Vegan variations omit the milk and eggs and include coconut milk instead. Though most tapioca pudding has pearls in it, some types of this pudding do not include pearls. Occasionally, pudding that is thickened with tuber root flour other than cassava can be called tapioca pudding, even though it has no tapioca in it.
Normally, tapioca comes in the form of a powdered flour, or in pressed sticks, sheets or beads. It is used all over the world, including Asia and Africa as well as Europe and North and South America. Besides tapioca pudding, it can be used to make or enhance many types of dishes. Fried tapioca shapes expand into crunchy puffs, which are commonly sold in bags as a salty or sweet snack.
Tapioca comes from the cassava root — a tuber called by many names, including yuca, macaxeira and manioc. Less commonly, it can also be called a tapioca plant. Though yuca and yucca are similarly spelled names, they are actually different plants; yucca also produces a starchy tuberous root used for food, but the cassava root that comes from yuca is not edible raw. Raw cassava root contains substances that are toxic to humans, and it must be processed to remove the poisons before it is used in food.
I love tapioca pudding, but I am *not* crazy about boba (or bubble) tea. My husband likes it, though. He also jokingly refers to tapioca pudding as "fish eyes in glue," which sounds awful, but is still pretty funny to me.
A good tapioca pudding should have a good creamy vanilla pudding base. Since this will be the predominant flavor, it's a good idea to use the best vanilla flavoring in the pudding. Tapioca doesn't have much flavor of its own, so good vanilla is a must.
Vanilla is easy to make at home, by the way. Just get a vanilla bean (most organic stores have them), spilt it and put it in a bottle of vodka. Let the bottle sit in a cool, dark place for a couple of weeks and bingo! Homemade vanilla – and it’s good stuff.