Updated: Jul 16, 2019
If taro-tapioca pudding doesn’t sound like a Chinese food, you’d be right. In my Cantonese mother’s kitchen, it was much more. It was also medicine.
At first pass, the purple-hued treat looks like an English pudding. The tapioca is processed from cassava root, a crop native to the New World. The milk used to be condensed milk. It also offers incontrovertible evidence of its presumed foreign origins. A common ingredient in European-styled sweets from colonial Hong Kong and Macau, condensed milk features in the egg custard tart, a dim sum classic.
But the recipe was more than an English pudding with mild Chinese flourishes. Taro tapioca may have begun its career as a Western dessert, but Cantonese cooks remade it in the image of a sweet soup (tangshui 糖水). Towards this end, they added taro root, omitted the eggs, and thinned out the pudding to make it soupy. In South China, sweet soups were not only delicious, but also had medicinal properties. They “cooled” and “replenished” bodies damaged by heat and exhaustion.
Each of the recipe’s elements, in fact, had a therapeutic purpose. Take the translucent pearls, or sago (ximi 西米). Traditionally produced from tropical palm starch, sago was a superfood and a staple in sweet soups. Doctors thought it cured emaciation and weakness in the legs. Sugar, too, had health benefits. It lubricated the lungs. Taro was reportedly good for developing fetuses and cleansing the body. Even the milk fit with this notion of food therapy. Physicians argued that milk saved the old, feeble, or malnourished.
In recent years, taro tapioca has returned to its roots as a sweet. It’s available in Chinese restaurants in San Francisco, under the dessert section of the menu. In recent years, cooks in the United States have begun substituting coconut milk for the dairy. In so doing, they have transformed the recipe into a vegan treat, and also re-aligned it with preconceptions about the Chinese diet being dairy-free.
From custard pudding to therapeutic soup to vegan dessert, taro tapioca has come full circle.
For the recipe, I used Japanese taro, which is the size of a new potato and has a white-colored flesh. But if you like a deeper purple color, use the large taro. It’s also less starchy.
Taro, 2 cups
Large tapioca or sago tapioca pearls, ¼ cup
Milk, 1 cup (or a combination of dairy or plant-based milk)
Sugar, ¼ cup
Water, 2 cups
1. Rinse the tapioca pearls and soak them in water overnight (at least seven hours).
2. Peel the taro and cut into cubes.
3. Steam the taro until tender, about 10 minutes in the Instant Pot.
4. Combine taro with milk and blend into a paste (you can omit this step if you like chunks). Let the mixture sit for an hour.
5. Heat the tapioca pearls and the taro-milk over a low flame, taking care not to scald the milk. Simmer the mixture.
6. When the tapioca pearls are translucent (after about 20 minutes), turn off the heat. Allow the mixture to sit for 10 minutes.