The small white beads are hard in their dry form but become soft and translucent when cooked.
Extracted from the tapioca or cassava root, the pearls are then shaped into globules, roasted and sun-dried. They are packed with carbs, but devotees will point out that they also are rich in calcium, fiber and iron.
Cooked tapioca pearls absorb the flavors of their teammates graciously, so they can work just as well in sweet puddings and savory items such as fritters and the vegan-friendly and gluten-free sabudana khichdi, which is akin to spiced-up Israeli couscous. The classic dish from the Indian state of Maharastra also is a favorite during upvas, a time of fasting.
Home cooks have different theories on whether to soak the dry pearls in water or not and for how long. Some swear by soaking them overnight while others contend soaking them for three to four hours would suffice. Some soak the pearls in yogurt, saying that it prevents them from getting sticky when sauteed with the chili-coconut mixture. Some add the yogurt along with the rest of the ingredients when cooking the pearls. But they all know better than to overcook them because the pearls will become chewy.
In my trial-and-error days of making the sabudana (translates to tapioca in Hindi), I found that if the pearls were soaked overnight in plenty of water, they were soft the following day, but they almost lost their round shape and ended up as one big gummy mass when cooked. These days I soak them overnight with just enough water to cover the pearls completely to get the perfect texture and shape.
I start off by rinsing the pearls well in cold water (about three times) by swirling my fingers amid the beads to get rid of the excess starch. After draining the water in a colander, I transfer them to a medium-sized bowl, add salt to taste and water, stir to combine, cover and let them soak overnight.
Alternately, I have found that the pearls retain their shape and come out just as soft when they are rinsed, drained, salted, spread out in a baking tray with little bit of water for about four hours, and they get a sprinkle of water every hour so that they don’t dry out.
Obtaining the right texture is not difficult to master, and when you do, the wholesome and wonderful sabudana khichdi comes together in minutes.
2 cups tapioca pearls
Salt to taste, divided
2 russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 serrano chilies, chopped
2 tablespoons grated coconut
Juice from 2 limes
3/4 cup lightly salted roasted peanuts
1/4 cup fresh cilantro, chopped
Wash tapioca well, by swirling fingers to get rid of the excess starch. Drain water, and repeat process about 3 times. Add salt to taste and mix well. Transfer to shallow pan and spread the tapioca. Sprinkle a little water on top, cover, and let it sit overnight or at least 4 hours to soften.
Microwave the peeled and cubed potatoes for 5 minutes; set aside.
Heat oil over medium-high and add cumin seeds. Stir for about 1 minute. Then add potatoes, chilies and salt to taste. Reduce heat to medium and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
Add coconut and stir for 2 minutes. Then add the softened tapioca. Add lime juice and combine well. Taste and add more salt if need be. Add peanuts and turn off heat when all is combined well. Garnish with chopped cilantro.
— Arthi Subramaniam
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