Photo: Cacio Murilo (Shutterstock)
The first thing that comes to mind when I hear “tapioca” is chewy, gummy boba spheres, but this wondrous starch has a different side it would like to show you. With minimal ingredients and a little heat, you can make a crispy, delicate, crepe-like shell that you can fill with a host of ingredients, sweet or savory. All you need is a little tapioca—the starch, that is.
It’s a snack worthy of a romantic, poetic name like “goddess lace” or “cobertor de nuvem,” but is simply referred to as “tapioca” in its home country of Brazil. Tapioca starch is made from the cassava root which is indigenous to Brazil, making it a pretty common ingredient used in many regional dishes. Tapioca is commonly eaten for breakfast, but it’s something you can make at home any time of day.
Tapioca starch is sold as a very fine powder and, like most starches, gelatinizes in the presence of a liquid and heat. You may have eaten tapioca that was boiled first and then added to a recipe like bubble tea or tapioca pudding. This preparation invites the starch to fully gelatinize, and the result is a food with a slippery, gummy texture. Tapioca made into a crispy shell is only slightly hydrated. The hydrated bits that are in contact with a hot pan gelatinize, while the top dries out, creating a thin, crunchy shell with a slightly chewy layer in the center. It’s sensational.
Tapioca and water mixturePhoto: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann
All you need to make a tapioca shell is tapioca starch and a splash of water. Add tapioca starch to a small bowl. I like to add a pinch of salt so the shell has a bit of flavor. Add a bit of water and give it a stir with your fingertips. You’ll find the consistency is odd (some might say “non-Newtonian”), a lot like how cornstarch acts with water. Push the mixture around, breaking it apart to hydrate the starch evenly. Add a little more water and mix again until you have medium sized clumps. If the mixture looks runny, add a bit more starch; it should be dry but not completely powdery.
Put a handful into a sieve and hold it over a hot frying pan. Instinct might tell you to oil the pan but this is all done dry. Using your hand, push the tapioca through the sieve into the pan. It’ll look like fake snow or tiny pieces of styrofoam. Try to get an even layer into the bottom of the pan. You can cover the entire bottom, just to make it easy on yourself. If it mounds in the center, use a spoon or spatula to push some from the thick areas over to the thin areas. The layer should be roughly ¼-inch thick. Stay on the thicker side as it is easier to flip and fold. After about 30 seconds, gently prod the pancake and you’ll see that it’s starting to gelatinize and stick together even though it looks dry. Flip the tapioca over and give it a press. Quickly fill, fold it in half, and serve.
Sieving tapioca into a hot pan.Photo: Allie Chanthorn Reinmann
You can fill them with absolutely anything you like—that includes sweet or savory—so enjoy exploring. Try black forest ham and brie, shredded pork and smoked gouda, scrambled eggs and hot sauce, or Nutella and sliced bananas. Be mindful that the tapioca shell only takes a few minutes to make once it hits the pan. Have your ingredients ready so you can fill and fold it while the shell is still flexible. The following recipe makes enough hydrated starch for two tapioca shells, but it can be easily doubled, tripled or quadrupled. Tapioca shells don’t keep particularly well, so it’s best to enjoy them immediately.
4 tablespoons tapioca starchPinch of salt2-3 tablespoons cool waterSweet or savory fillings
Put the tapioca starch and salt together in a small bowl. Dribble in one tablespoon of water at a time, mixing in between additions with your fingertips. When the tapioca clings together in hydrated clusters, but is not gooey, then it is ready to use.
Heat a frying pan over medium heat. Put half of the mixture into a sieve and press it through over the frying pan to cover the entire bottom of the pan. Let the tapioca heat for about 30 seconds. Prod the pancake and when it feels cohesive, flip it with a spatula. Let the other side cook while you top the tapioca with fillings. Fold it into a half-moon shape, and serve hot.