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Tapioca – The Other Rice

Wheat, rice, oats, these are the staples of many food storage plans. But when “it” happens, having access to variety will be crucial. Not only because it is just downright boring to eat the same thing day in and day out, but you may end up missing vital nutrients.

Behold the little known carb – tapioca. Now, I am sure if you are like most Westerners, when you hear the word “tapioca” you think of one thing, and one thing only – greasy, lumpy, gooey tapioca pudding. This is a hand-me-down from Britain, and we just never seemed to have gotten much farther than that, except for the emergence of “bubble tea” in major metropolitan areas, but more on that later.

What the rest of the world knows that we don’t is that tapioca is a great alternative starch and can be used in a variety of ways. In some regions of the world (such as its places of origin including Brazil, Indonesia, and the West Indies to name a few) it has long been a staple of many different types of dishes having nothing to do with dessert.

Nutrional Benefit

At first glance the low protein and limited vitamins makes it seems like tapioca has nothing to offer – other than a few B vitamins including folic acid which is crucial for pregnant women. But that would be missing out on all the other nutritional benefits of tapioca. It has great amounts of iron (one cup has 13% of the daily allowance which is almost twice the amount in wheat berries) and other minerals such as calcium and maganese among others. It is also high in both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (both critical for brain function), and those are the only sources of fat – unlike meat products which have lots of omega fatty acids and lots of other harmful fats too.

Finally, while tapioca may not show up on your diet list, it is great for survival just because of the sheer caloric punch it carries. A single cup of dry pearls contains 544 calories, comparable to the 600 calories in a cup of dry wheat berries, and better than brown rice at 331 calories, or oats at 300 calories for a cup of uncooked grain. And since it is gluten free, it may be a great staple substitute for wheat if you can’t eat gluten.

Purchasing and Storage

This is one plant you might want to skip growing at home, since the cassava plant from which it comes contains a toxin in the root that is harmful to humans and must be processed out. You can purchase tapioca as a powder, flakes, or most commonly pears or various sizes.

Because this is a little used item in the Western world, you might have to shop around. If tapioca pearls are sold at your local store, they will probably be relatively expensive. Check for bulk availability at your local health food or wholesale store, or through a food co-op. It may also be labeled by its other name of boba. I am able to purchase them for around $2 per pound. You can even buy some on Amazon!

Tapioca has a great shelf life particularly if you follow good food storage principles and keep it sealed and away from heat, light, and moisture. I have successfully kept tapioca pearls for over two years without even using mylar and O2 absorbers, just keeping them in a sealed food grade bucket leftover from a bulk peanut butter purchase. They are still as fresh and tasty as when purchased.


Tapioca, just like rice, wheat, and flour, needs to be hydrated before consumption. In the case of pearls, they come as hard white balls that become soft and translucent when reconstituted. And though we might only be familiar with the dessert, you can create many savory dishes as well, and even beverages. Because it does not have much flavor on its own, it adds texture and nutrition to a variety of dishes. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • Pudding. Home cooked tapioca pudding is nothing like the greasy goop you get in the can. It is sweet, creamy, and delicious – and can even be made  in your slow cooker for an easy dessert.
  • Bubble tea. If you have never heard of this, you must not live in a college town or large metro area like New York or Chicago. Basically it uses large hydrated tapioca pearls and extra wide straws to create a unique texture and sensation to your iced tea drinking experience. The teas come in all different flavors, and original was popular in Asia and slowly took hold in other areas as immigrants brought it West. I had some on my honeymoon, and found it a fun treat. You could do the same thing with herbal tea and juice for kids too, and I bet they will love sucking the giant bubbles up their straws.
  • Thickener for soups and sauces. Tapioca powder can be used instead of flour or cornstarch as a thickener for all your soups and sauces. And as noted above, it is a fantastic gluten free substitute if that is what you need.
  • As a substitute for rice. Get creative and try cooked tapioca plain, seasoned, or salted, as a bed for your stir fry or other savory dish.
  • Pies. Since it is a great thickening agent, you can use tapioca pearls or flour in many fruit pie recipes, such as one I found online for blueberry tapioca pie.
  • Eggless pancakes. Want a gluten-free, eggless, pancake that is still spongy and delicious? Try making tapioca pancakes for a new twist on an old favorite.

The possibilities are only limited by your imagination and willingness to experiment. If you are ready to take your food storage plans up a notch, and want to diversify to some new foods both in your pantry and your daily diet, consider some tapioca and add some spice to life.

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