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Question: What are those black slimy balls in bubble tea? Are they good for me? Do they have protein?

Those slick, black rounds lingering in the nether regions of your bubble tea are tapioca pearls, also called boba, black pearls, QQ (short for chewy-chewy in Cantonese) or simply, slimy black thingies. They are a relatively new addition to beverages, but their history is long and shrouded in tales of ancient globalization and food processing.

Tapioca is the starch of a root vegetable called cassava, also known as manioc or yuca. The story of cassava starts in South America, where it has been part of the native diet of the Amazonian people since prehistoric times. This starch is still prevalent in Brazilian, Caribbean, African and Asian cuisines.

There are two types of cassava root. One is sweet and eaten as a vegetable, much like potato. A second, bitter variety, from which tapioca derives, is a deadly poison if not handled properly. It contains toxic cyanogenic glucoside, which has the distinction of converting to cyanide in the human body. Luckily for us, indigenous people in Brazil developed techniques - soaking, grating, fermenting and long cooking - to neutralize the poison and produce a mellow starch that becomes the base for several tasty foods with long shelf lives.

Once the Portuguese discovered manioc, they took it the world over to fuel their nutritional needs during conquest and colonization. Today, bitter cassava is processed by industry and sold as large pearls for bubble tea, small pearls for tapioca pudding, and also as powdered starch used as a thickening agent.

Boba's presence in tea is traced to Taiwan in the mid-1980s. Bubble drinks (referring to a layer of bubbles resulting from being shaken) had been around for a few years as an after-school refreshment when Liu Han-Chieh, a teashop owner, boldly added tapioca pearls to milky tea. Although Asia has a long tradition of hiding comestibles in their drinks, this had never been attempted with tea. Thank you, Mr. Han-Chieh!

Cassava root is quite nutritious, sustaining more than 2 million people on the planet as a staple. High in calcium and vitamin C, cassava root is rich in carbohydrates, but practically void of protein.

The best boba in town can be found at Tatàme - pleasantly chewy and delightfully sweet.

If you have a food-related question, or want to know where to find a particular dish or ingredient here in town, please write me at [email protected]. I'm always eager for the next culinary adventure. — AJSH

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