Balls (Plus a Recipe for Vanilla Bean, Lemongrass, & Ginger Tapioca)

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Two people want to write this post. One is the part of me that’s a responsible food writer, eloquently describing the childhood regression I experience when eating this dish. The other is the product of that regression that wants to make jokes about balls.

It’s just an inevitable pitfall when your topic is tapioca.

Right now I’m doing my best to keep the Little Garrett at bay, but every time I get a hold on him he wriggles right out of my hands. He’s on a sugar rush. You know, from all that tapioca. His smile bubbles up with each spoonful and I scold my inner rugrat, “No, you can’t have another bowl.” He then proceeds to ignore me and begins his work on a third helping.

It's not just the taste and smell of tapioca. It's how it looks. To a child it's an alien dessert; amphibious eggs lying in the primordial ooze. (A good imagination can take tapioca a long way.)

As the inner food writer eats the tapioca his friend calls and asks what he’s doing. Before he can answer the inner child grabs the phone and gleefully giggles out that he’s busy shoving balls in his mouth. All I can do is sigh, shoo him away and apologize. Then the inner food writer can't help but laugh a little as well.

My regression is right; the balls are the fun part of tapioca. The slimy orbs slide around like rubber bumper cars. The food writer in me makes a game out of trying to pin one to the roof of my mouth with the tip of my tongue.

Hiding under your bologna sandwich, tapioca was the one part of your school lunch you never traded. The freakishly saccharin taste of vanilla. The muddled and strange texture. Tapioca was coveted kids food on the playground. As good as buried treasure, Saturday morning cartoons and swimming lessons.

The food writer, brimming with nostalgia, still covets it today. He can’t help but purr at the taste of the vanilla bean flecked custard. Served warm the scent of sprightly lemongrass lingers and what might be considered by most as far too much ginger - a concept I can’t quite wrap my head around - permeates the room.

It’s adult tapioca; a pudding that’s been doted over and cooed at while being stirred for forty minutes. No chemically faux-vanilla aftertaste and not so sweet that suddenly *poof* you’re a diabetic.

Still, my inner child and inner food writer can reconcile for this post and agree that homemade tapioca is balls to the wall good. A bit of time and attention (and maybe some inner mediation) is all that's required.

Spiced Tapioca
This is a riff on the tapioca from Heidi's blog, 101 Cookbooks.

3 cups of whole milk
1/3 cup small pearl tapioca
2 extra-large egg yolks, lightly beaten
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/3 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split and scraped (or 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract)
1 1/2 tablespoons of freshly grated ginger
1 stalk of lemongrass chopped into lengths and bruised

1. Pour 3/4 cup of the milk and the tapioca pearls into a medium-sized, thick bottomed pot and let soak for an hour.

2. Whisk in the rest of the milk, yolks, sugar, salt and vanilla bean scrapings. Add the vanilla bean husk and the lemongrass.

3. Over medium heat slowly bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. This will take about 15 minutes. When it's just about to boil turn the heat down to a mild simmer. Stir constantly for 20 minutes. (Seriously, just turn on the TV and stir. This is to keep it all from scorching, which will happen.) The tapioca pearls will become mostly translucent.

4. The tapioca will be slightly loose. Don't worry it, will thicken plenty when it cools. Furthermore, it risks developing a slightly grainy texture if you keep it on the heat too long.

5. Delicious served warm, but I prefer it chilled the next day.


  1. Hey - I thought there was a discussion about balls going on over here. I guess I need to get the ball(s) rolling (yes, yes, that was horribly bad, sorry).

    Anyway - this sounds really good and I'll have to try variation of it sometime soon (I'm also planning on making a version of your Blondies recipe). Unfortunately - right now it's just to hot in my apartment to start playing with balls.

  2. I love tapioca even though there are those that call it fish eyes in glue. It's one of those texture foods you either love or hate. Guess Asians tend to be on the love side. Yesterday I went to Lee's and got taro milk with lychee jellies in it. Opted for that over the giant tapioca pearls. But again, it's another texture thing, especially floating around in a milky liquid.

  3. It is fun that you think of tapioca pudding as something from your childhood. When I was a kid, I thought tapioca was for old people and didn't even try it until after college!

  4. Someone has to like tapioca. I knew it wasn't going to be me for the same reason you seem to love it. I can't stand the texture! The only use I have for it is as a thickening agent in some pies.

    So you can have my share. :o)

  5. Is there something missing in step one? And where in Sac is a good place to purchase reasonably priced vanilla beans? Because between the Tapioca and the Double Vanilla Cupcakes I must have vanilla and I must have it soon.

  6. It's weird, I rarely remember having tapioca as a kid, but I didn't like it.

    Then, last summer I was lucky enough to enjoy the tasting menu at Gramercy Tavern with my family and one of the desserts was tapioca. Delicious, delicious tapioca, with interesting flavors and sorberts akin to what you've done. And I was swooned.

    I actually haven't really had it since, but just recently I tried one version of bubble tea in Little Korea way out in Queens and again, I was swooned. The texture is so fascinating to me! I've never even thought to cook tapioca at home, though.

  7. Lili - Yep! Sorry about that! All fixed now. Also, I order my beans online. As for a place in Sac to get tapioca pearls, I go to SF Market in South Sacramento. Great asian market with everything you could want.

  8. I have adored tapioca forever, my grandmother used to make it from scratch...the store-bought kind merely makes me want the real thing. I do have issues finding the pearls though, I stumble on them occasionally and try to grab a box when I do.

    Too much ginger? How is that possible? I mean, ok...eating it raw - all of the finger - might come close. eyes..its all good.

  9. I love the new look...just fab!

  10. Vanilla beans = Costco. About a dollar apiece, very fresh, very tasty, and you don't even have to buy 1000 of them. :D I think they come in a pack of 8 or 10.


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