Tapioca balls come from Tapioca which is a starch extracted from the cassava root (also known as yuca in some parts of the world). It is used as a thickening agent in many foods. It can be made into flour — it has a similar texture to cornstarch — which is often times used in gluten-free breads. It can also be made into pearls in varying sizes, which are also known as boba (a transliteration of the word “bubble”) or “pearls” in bubble tea, are mainly composed of starch, specifically tapioca powder. Some boba are five-to-ten-millimeter starch balls, consisting of sweet potato powder, potato powder or jelly. By adding different ingredients—water, sugar and seasoning, tapioca balls vary in color and in texture. Tapioca has a neutral flavor and strong gelling power, making it highly use-able as a thickening agent in both sweet and savory foods. Unlike corn starch, tapioca can withstand a freeze thaw cycle without losing its gel structure or breaking down. Tapioca must be soaked and then boiled with a liquid to form a gel and is therefore usually added to food prior to cooking. To make the tapioca pearls, the moist cassava starch is passed through a sieve. Once dry, it’s then rolled up into little balls. Depending on the ingredients of the pearl, the color varies. Tapioca pearls that are white contain just the cassava root. The brown ones contain cassava root, brown sugar, and sometimes dangerous food dyes, like caramel coloring. The little starchy brown spheres are plopped into hot water, sometimes with even more added sugar, to cook for no longer than three hours. When boba are overcooked, they can be really mushy and when undercooked the pearls can be crispy or hard. Boba should be smooth and soft on the outside and have a consistency between gummy bears and Swedish fish on the inside. To make it extra chewy (or “QQ”), the boba are chilled quickly after cooking.
In Taiwan, it's more common for people to refer to bubble tea as pearl milk tea (zhēn zhū nǎi chá, 珍珠奶茶) because originally small 1/12” tapioca pearls were used. It was only when one tea shop owner—in an attempt to make his tea stand out—decided to use larger tapioca balls and chose a more provocative name, “boba,” to represent the difference. In Chinese, the word boba, 波霸, is a combination of a word for bubble and a word for big, which, when found together, is slang for “big breasts” or “buxom lady.” When used to describe the drink, the characters 波霸奶茶 directly translate to boba milk tea, and loosely to bubble milk tea. This translation is commonly used by English speakers and refers to the variant with the big, 1/4" tapioca pearls.
Bubble tea has gained widespread popularity in recent years across Europe, and Germany in particular, after already converting young people across North America. German McDonald’s have even begun selling the dessert beverage as part of its recently revamped McCafe menu, the Independent reports.
Toxicity and Cancer Claims
German researchers from the University Hospital Aachen have reportedly found traces of carcinogenic chemicals in tapioca ball samples. The tapioca was taken from an unnamed chain in northwest Germany and originated in Taiwan, according to the Daily News.
“[What we found] includes in particular styrene, acetophenone, and brominated substances that shouldn’t be in food at all,” scientist Manfred Möller, of the Institute of Hygiene and Environmental Medicine at the University Hospital Aachen, told German newspaper The Local, notes the AFP.
According to the EPA, PCBs belong to a broad family of man-made organic chemicals manufactured between 1929 and 1979. The chemicals still exist in the environment despite their U.S. manufacturing ban. Ranging in toxicity, PCBs have been shown to cause cancer, as well as a variety of other adverse health effects on the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system, the government site continues.
The cancer concerns were compounded by another public health warning, released earlier in August by the country’s German Federal Institute for Risk Assessment. German authorities warned that the beverage’s hallmark gummy balls, may pose a choking risk.
“Especially with children aged up to four years, there is a risk of foreign objects accidentally entering the lungs,” said Dr. Andreas Hensel in a press release on the Institute’s website. “And that is precisely what can happen when the bubbles are sucked up through a straw.”
According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, a leading manufacturer of bubble tea drink ingredients has since disputed the researchers’ claims. Wang Chun-feng, chairman of the Possmei Corp., held a press conference Tuesday from his offices in New Taipei, to defend the safety of his products. Meanwhile, an official from Taiwan’s Food and Drug Administration also refuted the German safety warnings, calling into question the authenticity of the test results.
Jelly Tapioca Pearls (or Frog Egg Drink)
“Jelly tapioca pearls” is one of the most famous night market refreshments. It gets its Mandarin name, “frog eggs,” from its white appearance in the middle after cooking. Actually, “frog eggs” are “tapioca.” In Shilin Night Market, Taiwan, vendors who sell the drink usually add some syrup or creamer before serving. Vendors in other night markets put jelly tapioca pearls on top of shaved ice.
Heart Tapioca is an authentic snack of Yilan.
The first Heart Tapioca Shop was opened in May, 1991. Wei Shu Feng and Xu Qiong Wen, a married couple who were running a restaurant, decided to invest in tapioca balls since they both liked douhua or tofu pudding, and tapioca balls. They thought that if traditional tangyuan (balls made from sticky rice) could be stuffed with different ingredients, then tapioca balls can be as well. Therefore, they started to come up with different ideas of stuffed tapioca balls, more popularly known as Heart Tapioca.
After a lot of research, testing and failures, the widely accepted “Red Bean Heart Tapioca”, which can endure continuous and repeated boiling, came into being. Heart Tapiocas look just like normal tapioca balls , but they contain red beans or other fillings, and more flavors are appearing on the market. Luodong, a town in Yilan, was where tapioca balls with fillings first came out in Taiwan.
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- Bennett-Smith, Meredith (2012-09-05). "Bubble Tea Tapioca Pearls May Cause Cancer, Study Says". The Huffington Post. Retrieved 2016-11-18.
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