Tapioca, Arrowroot, and Cornstarch – More Food Thickeners

I grew up using three starch thickeners that I haven’t worked with in a while. Arrowroot was used primarily in coconut pudding, cookies, and healthy porridge. Cornstarch bulked up Indian-Chinese dishes, and tapioca helped to set both sweet and savory food. As I tried to perfect roux with white flour and butter last week, I decided to revisit the three starches of my childhood.

Tapioca, arrowroot, and cornstarch have distinct properties. All three starches are neutral in taste and have a lighter, more powdery texture than flour. They can replace flour to thicken a stew or gravy and glaze a fruit pie. Tapioca and arrowroot are being rediscovered because of their gluten-free properties and are now commonly available; choosing between them depends on the type of ingredients needed for a dish. If the ingredients are acidic, then tapioca and arrowroot starch are preferable. If the dish is dairy-based, use cornstarch. Unlike flour that makes sauce opaque, tapioca, arrowroot, and cornstarch offer glazes that range from clear to glossy. Depending on whether a chocolate pudding benefits from shimmering glaze (use arrowroot), a fruit pie from a clear glaze (use tapioca starch), or creamy soup from a translucent glaze (use cornstarch), these starches offer a variety of ways to present the final dish.


What all three starches do have in common is that none of them can be added directly to a hot stock or liquid. They should first be mixed with equal parts water to form a watery mixture called slurry. The slurry is then added to the simmering stock and whisked continuously so that the starch gelatinizes and thickens. The slurry prevents the starch from clumping together. As with all starch thickeners, the key to achieving a smooth rich stock is to continuously whisk the starch so that the mix does not taste floury, until you reach the right consistency. Be mindful of overcooking.



Arrowroot Starch Cassava/Tapioca Starch Cornstarch
Source From a ginger-like rhizome From a root tuber From endosperm of corn
Slurry Mix in cold liquid Mix in cold liquid Mix in cold liquid
Substitution for 1 tbsp. all purpose flour 1 ½ tsp 1 ½ tsp 1 tbsp
Best for Fruits or similar highly acidic medium Fruits and similar acidic medium Dairy-based medium
Cooking times  Cannot be cooked for long periods, best below boiling point. Does not do as well as tapioca with dishes that have to be frozen. Does not do well reheated, so add just before needed. Cannot be cooked for long periods. Good for dishes that are going to be frozen, like a fruit pie Can be cooked for longer periods than the other two. Does not do well when the dish has to be frozen
Appearance of Final Dish Shiny glossy glaze Clear glaze  Translucent glaze



Coconut-Chocolate Pudding with Arrowroot

Organic unsweetened coconut milk – 1 ¾ cup

Cocoa powder – 4 tbsp

Semi-sweet chocolate morsels – 5 tbsp

Arrowroot powder – ¼ tsp

Salt – ½ tsp

Sugar – 2 tbsp

Cinnamon and nutmeg (freshly powdered) – ½ tsp

Crushed arrowroot biscuits or sugar cookies – topping

  • To a ¼ cup of coconut milk, add cocoa powder and cinnamon, nutmeg powder and arrowroot. Mix well to form the slurry.
  • Bring the remaining coconut milk to a simmer.
  • Add salt and sugar to the warm coconut milk. Stir to dissolve.
  • Take ½ cup of simmering liquid and mix well with the slurry. Add this mixture back to the simmering coconut milk. Whisk for a minute. Add the chocolate and continue whisking until it starts becoming thick, about 30 seconds or so. Remove immediately from heat.
  • Pour into ramekins and chill for 8 hours or more.
  • Before serving, sprinkle the crushed cookies on top.


A Gluten-Free Carbohydrate: Cassava Flour and Tapioca Pearls. Part 2

Last week while cooking my favorite root tuber, cassava, I learned that cassava flour (made from cassava starch) is gluten-free. The starch that is extracted from the cassava root is available in two forms – fine white flour or opaque tapioca pearls. When American families and friends with disparate tastes and food allergies gather around the Thanksgiving table, cassava flour and pearls can be incorporated in the meal to include those with gluten sensitivity to the table. The flour and pearls can be used to make cheese bread and dessert (tapioca pudding and falooda), offering simple substitutions to long-established menus.

Gluten is a protein found in grains that give dough its elasticity and bread its texture. Sensitivity to gluten or celiac disease prohibits foods made with many of the traditional grains, such as wheat and rye. Cassava flour is a good alternate for making bread, pancakes, or to thicken gravy. South Americans use cassava flour to make a cheese bread called Pao de Queijo and Chipa – deliciously cheesy with a pleasant chewy bite.




Cheese Bread (Brazil)

Cassava flour – 2 cups

Whole milk – 1 cup

Vegetable oil – ½ cup

Salt – ¾ tsp

Egg – 2, beaten

Parmesan cheese – 1 ½ cup

  • Set the oven to 400°F.
  • Add all the ingredients, except for the cheese, in a large bowl.
  • Mix them together to form dough.
  • Fold in the cheese to the dough mixture.
  • Drop a tablespoon of the dough at a time on to a nonstick pan.
  • Cook the dough balls for 15-20 minutes.



Tapioca Pudding and Falooda are two easy desserts that use tapioca pearls, the starch made from the cassava root. The pearls are available in a range of diameters (1mm to 6mm) and colors (brown, white, and black). Tapioca pearls need to be soaked in water or cooked in milk to rehydrate them. When cooked in milk, they give tapioca pudding a comforting creamy consistency. The water-soaked tapioca pearls in falooda add a chewy morsel in an otherwise rich and milky South Asian dessert.


Tapioca Pudding

Whole milk – 3 cups

Eggs – 2, beaten

Tapioca Pearls (white) – ½ cup

Sugar – ½ cup

Salt – ¼ tsp

Vanilla/rose/cinnamon essence – 1 tsp

  • Mix the whole milk, tapioca pearls and salt in a saucepan and bring it slowly to a boil. Stir continuously so tapioca mixes and thickens as it cooks.
  • When the milk starts to boil, turn the heat down. Add sugar slowly, while stirring continuously so it dissolves.
  • Remove from heat and let the thickened mixture cool for a minute.
  • Add the beaten egg into the mixture (watch it doesn’t curdle).
  • Bring the mixture back to a simmer and let it thicken, about five minutes.
  • Add the essence.
  • Dessert can be eaten warm or cold. Top with berries.




Milk – 1 cup

Translucent noodles (vermicelli) – 1 oz.

Tapioca pearls (black) – 2 tbsp.

Strawberry or raspberry jelly – 1 packet

Rose syrup – 1 tbsp

Vanilla ice cream –1 small tub

  • Make the jelly according to the instructions on the packet
  • Soak the tapioca pearls in water for half-hour to rehydrate them.
  • Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the packet or until soft.
  • Add the drained noodles to half a cup of milk and simmer for five minutes.
  • Have all the ingredients near at hand to assemble the dessert. Keep layers separate for a colorful display. In a tall glass, start with a layer of jelly, followed by the noodles and a tablespoon of milk, 1 tablespoon of tapioca pearls, and two scoops of ice cream. Finally, drizzle  the rose syrup over the ice cream. Serve immediately.





A Good Carbohydrate: Cassava (Manioc or Yuca). Part 1

One of the advantages of visiting my foodie family is that I am treated to my favorite foods – and this time around I was lucky enough to enjoy fresh kappa and meen (tapioca and fish) not just once, but three times. Tapioca is technically the starch taken from the cassava root, but in Kerala, India, the root and its preparation are interchangeably called tapioca – a custom derived from its Portuguese origins. Originally from Brazil, cassava is a carbohydrate that is eaten throughout Asia, Africa, and South America. Aside from eating the fresh tuber, starch from cassava root is made into flour and tapioca pearls, the glistening “pearls” that are found in bubble tea, falooda, and tapioca pudding.

With the advent of low-carbohydrate/high-protein diets, complex starches like potato and cassava have come under unfair scrutiny. However, for a properly functioning system, we do need plant-based starches for energy. It is for this reason that I decided to post about a complex carbohydrate source. I chose to showcase cassava in a two-part blog – the first on cooking the root tuber, and the second, using the gluten-free tapioca flour and pearls, derivatives of the original root.

The taste of cooked cassava is similar to a potato – with maybe a little more of a fibrous texture. A fresh cassava root has a tough outer skin similar to winter squashes, and travels well thereby extending its shelf life. The hardest part of using fresh cassava is cutting and peeling the tough skin. Once that is done, cassava cooks as simply as boiling a potato. Cooked cassava has a mild taste and adds bulk to stews; it also makes an ideal pairing with fiery dishes.

Note: The root contains toxins that are removed when cassava is boiled. If you want to try out the raw taste, you can also buy the pre-cooked frozen cassava.



How to prepare and cook fresh cassava:

  • Bring a pan of water to boil.
  • In the meantime, scrub the cassava root under running water.
  • Place it on a cutting board; use a sharp knife to cut through the root.
  • Hold the cut half upright, and peel back the tough outer layer and the purple skin. Repeat for the other half, cut off the ends, and you should be left with a white root.
  • Wash the root well. Cut into large cubes.
  • Add the root to boiling water. Let it cook for 30-50 minutes, depending on the freshness of the root. It is ready when you can pierce it easily with a fork.
  • Drain the cassava pieces in a colander. Rinse with fresh water.

Fu Fu: In Africa, the cooked cassava is mashed like potato. While it is still hot, add butter, salt and pepper. Serve Fu Fu (or Fufu) with a hardy stew.

In Sri Lanka and Kerala, the boiled cassava is served with a punchy chutney made with green chili, onion, and coconut oil.

Tapioca (Kerala style)

Cassava – 1 medium

Oil – 3 tbsp

Mustard seeds – 1 tbsp

Cumin seeds – ½ tbsp

Shallot (or 1 small onion) – 2, chopped finely

Red chili – 3

Curry leaves (optional) – 1 sprig

Turmeric powder – ¼ tsp

Unsweetened shredded coconut – ½ cup

  • Cook the cassava (above).
  • Heat the oil in a pan.
  • Add the mustard seeds. Wait until they pop before adding the cumin seeds.
  • As soon as the cumin seeds start to sizzle, add the onions.
  • Sauté until the onions start to brown.
  • Add the rest of the ingredients and stir-fry for one minute.
  • Add the cooked tapioca and blend it with the mixture.

Enjoy with a spicy stew or as a savory snack.