Tapioca is a type of starch. It is most associated with tapioca pudding, though it is also used as a thickener in other dishes. This has led some people to think that any thicker is tapioca. In reality, there are some thickeners made from other ingredients.
Authentic tapioca is made from cassava root. This plant is endemic to South America, which uses it in many of its dishes. In fact, the word tapioca originates from the Tupi language (which is traced to Brazil). It combines several words: “ty” refers to “juice”, “pya” means “heart” and “oca” refers to “remove. In other words, it describes the way tapioca “juice” is harvested from the root. This is a very important process because it must somehow avoid extracting the toxins which naturally occur in cassava.
The traditional way of making tapioca involves smashing the root to its pulp. This is then washed, leaving just the desired starches. The next step requires heating this until the paste is reduced to powders, flakes or pearls. Powders are ideal for making that famous tapioca pudding, as well as jellies and even soups. Pearls are incorporated into drinks or desserts.
As a thickener, tapioca is actually quite versatile. Its neutral taste does not interfere with flavor of other ingredients. It can be used in desserts, or added to stir fries or rice toppings. Asian cuisine often uses tapioca for making savory sauces.
Tapioca adds texture to a dish or drink but has no significant vitamins or nutrients.