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The Way We Eat: Mini-Pearl

The New York Times
April 17, 2005
The Way We Eat: Mini-Pearl

It is not often that an ingredient that tastes like nothing captures the imagination of chefs like Thomas Keller and Ferran Adria and inspires scores of shops around the world to design whimsical, multicolored drinks around it. The secret weapon? No, not water. It's actually tapioca pearls.

Keller's "oysters and pearls" -- a savory tapioca custard aerated with oyster sabayon and creme fraiche and topped with a carefully shaped mound of osetra caviar -- became a seminal dish of the late 1990's, a dish so well known that almost no chef dares to copy it. Instead, they found their own ways to use the pearls. When he was at Daniel, the chef Alex Lee added them to a beef consomme that he served with halibut. The pearls thicken the sauce and dot the plate like drops of water.

More influential than either of these has been the creation of "bubble tea" -- sweet, creamy drinks inhabited by a thick layer of giant tapioca pearls and drunk through extra-wide straws. A variation of the cool sweet-tea drinks found all over Southeast Asia (which are lumped with ice cubes and often sold in plastic bags tied around a straw) and are available in Chinatowns all over America, these tapioca teas originated in Taiwan. Indeed, after tasting one such drink, Adria's younger brother, Albert, who works with the chef in their Barcelona laboratory, set to work on their own version of egglike balls (made with squid ink) in a savory liquid, a dish that came to be known as "liquid ravioli" and was served at El Bulli, their theater of the brilliant and absurd.

Tapioca's presence in both high and low culinary domains is especially remarkable given how much emphasis is now placed on flavor. The tiny translucent (when not dyed) pearls have instead underlined the importance of texture. Tapioca is all feel. You cannot describe the tender pearls without Freud getting in the way. I will leave it to your own musings.

Tapioca, like sea urchins and artichokes, is also a food whose arrival on the list of edibles is a great mystery. It comes from the cassava plant, which is steeped in cyanide. Somehow, humans figured out long ago that if you grate, ferment and sun-dry the plant, it won't kill you. Forms of cassava with lower levels of cyanide have been bred, but perhaps that's like cheating: the "Encyclopedia of Food and Culture" (Charles Scribner's Sons) observes that "many farmers prefer to cultivate the high-cyanide varieties for reasons that are not entirely clear."

Cassava has become a major staple throughout the world, particularly in South America, where it originated, but also in Africa and Asia. The Portuguese, who discovered it when they colonized Brazil in the 16th century, later introduced it to their other colonies, where it was used to make bread, beer and farina.

Tapioca pearls took hold in Britain in the 18th century: workers mixed cassava flour and water and massaged it (by hand or machine) into tiny balls, which were dried like pasta and later cooked in simmering liquid.

For centuries, Westerners remained contented with tapioca pudding, a marginal member of a family of squishy and dubious British milk puddings. "It is sometimes despised by the ignorant," Alan Davidson wrote in "The Oxford Companion to Food," "that is to say persons who have no knowledge of how good they are when properly made. Also, when tapioca is cooked in milk, it becomes translucent and jellylike, causing children to detect a resemblance between it and frog spawn. This may have been an additional factor in inspiring distrust."

My great-grandmother used to call it "fish-eye pudding" and could never understand why no one ate it. But as an adult, I would agree with Davidson that a well-made tapioca pudding is a delightful thing as long as it is adequately dosed with fresh cinnamon and lemon zest and left loose, not gluey.

For a lesson in consistency, we can look to Asia, where the pearls are incorporated into numerous light and delicious sweets. Many are simply variations of a coconut and tapioca soup, whose foundation, according to Corinne Trang, the author of "Essentials of Asian Cuisine" (Simon & Schuster), is typically tapioca pearls, coconut milk, palm sugar and salt. In Vietnam, bananas and sometimes root vegetables are added; in Myanmar, white bread and ice cubes; in Thailand, jackfruit. Each is rich but refreshing; the pearls are a buoyant touch.

Bubble tea is a drink version of these soups. Teas, coffee and fruits are blended with syrup and often some form of milk (coconut, regular milk or evaporated milk), shaken or blended with crushed ice and then poured over a handful of the precooked pearls. Bubble-tea pearls are sometime small and dainty, but often they are large like marbles and tinted with tea, caramel and dyes. (Bubble tea is no longer a street-food cottage industry, and parboiled pearls in vacuum packed bags and extra-large straws can be ordered on the Internet.)

Regular white tapioca is very easy to cook, if you don't mind watching a boiling pot. I have tried a handful of tapiocas of all different sizes, and none have cooked in the time indicated on the package. Many recipes instruct you to soak the tapioca, a step that mystifies me. As long as you cook tapioca in liquid until it is clear and soft, there's little you can do to ruin it. For puddings, you simmer it in milk or coconut milk; for sauces and soups, in seasoned broth; for bubble teas, in water. If you want the tapioca pearls to remain separate, as they do in bubble tea, bring water to a boil (at least 15 parts water to 1 part tapioca, less if the tapioca is parboiled), cook the tapioca, drain it and store it in a container. When you're ready to use it, loosen it with a little water to break up the pearls.

If you want to add viscosity to a savory broth, add less liquid to pearls (say 12 to 1), and for a dense pudding, reduce the proportion even more. Remember that tapioca continues to thicken its cooking liquid as it cools. And whatever you do, when you serve it, try not to mention fish eyes or frog spawn to your guests.

The Last Straw
Tapioca pearls for bubble tea come in a number of colors and sizes. Black pearls are blended with caramel, then parboiled and vacuum-packed, so all that you need to do is drop them in boiling water for a few minutes to soften them. Because the black pearls are nearly the size of marbles, extra-wide bubble tea straws are in order. Both may be purchased at bobafind.com and bubbleteasupply.com.

Litchi Coconut Bubble Tea
1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
2 cups tapioca pearls ( 1/4-inch wide)
For each bubble tea:
1/2 cup chilled tapioca pearls
1 cup crushed ice
1 cup canned litchi nuts in syrup
3/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup milk
1to 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice.

1. In a saucepan, combine the sugars with 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil; then turn off the heat. In a pot, bring 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add the tapioca and cook until tender, about 8 minutes if parboiled. Drain. Mix the pearls with the sugar mixture and chill.

2. To make a drink, spoon the pearls into a large glass. In a blender, puree the ice, litchis, coconut milk, milk and lime juice. When smooth and frothy, pour over the pearls and stick in a straw. Serves 1.

Tapioca Beef Broth
1 cup unsalted beef broth
3 sprigs thyme, preferably lemon thyme
1 tablespoon instant tapioca
Salt and ground white pepper.

1. Bring the broth to a boil in a small saucepan. Remove from the heat, toss in the thyme, cover and let steep for 30 minutes.

2. Strain the broth into a clean saucepan and bring to a boil. Add the tapioca, cover the pan, remove it from the heat and let sit for 15 to 20 minutes or until the tapioca is translucent. Season with salt and pepper. The original recipe, adapted from "Daniel Boulud's Cafe Boulud Cookbook," by Daniel Boulud and Dorie Greenspan (Scribner), is served with roasted halibut, sauteed chanterelles and braised endive.

Coconut and Tapioca Soup
2 cups coconut milk
1/3 cup tapioca pearls (1 1/816-inch wide)
1/3 cup palm sugar, or regular sugar
Large pinch of salt
1 yam, peeled and diced ( 1/2 inch)
2 tablespoons chopped peanuts.

Bring the coconut milk and 2 cups of water to a boil. Stir in the tapioca, palm sugar, salt and the yam. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the tapioca becomes translucent, about 20 to 30 minutes. Serve warm, sprinkled with peanuts, in individual bowls. Serves 4. This recipe is a combination of one from "Pleasures of the Vietnamese Table," by Mai Pham (HarperCollins), and one in "Essentials of Asian Cuisine," by Corinne Trang (Simon & Schuster).

Old-Fashioned Tapioca Pudding
Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a saucepan and pour in 1/2 cup tapioca pearls ( 1/8 inch wide). Cook for 2 minutes. Pour in 4 cups milk and 1/4 cup sugar. Add 1 cinnamon stick. Simmer, stirring occasionally, until the tapioca is translucent and soft, 30 to 40 minutes. Stir in the fresly grated zest of 1 lemon. Serve warm. Serves 4.

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