11 August 2014


Years ago, at a hotel breakfast in Recife, state of Pernambuco, I was offered tapioca as an alternative to eggs, and I declined. All I could think of was the tapioca pudding of my youth and, frankly, that flavor was never my favorite. (Give me butterscotch anytime.) But slowly, slowly I came to understand that tapioca here is so much more than that sad-looking glop sitting on the trays in the school cafeteria. Tapioca here, made from manioc (or yuca, or cassava — there are many names), is amazingly versatile. It comes in flour, in sticks, in flakes and in pearls, and it can be made into a variety of breads, puddings and porridges. Tapioca flour is the basis for the ubiquitous Brazilian cheese bread, or pão de queijo, and a mashed bean dish called tutu de feijão, both of which I’ve been eating and enjoying for years.

pão de queijo

tutu de feijão

tapioca pudding, brazilian-style

But the tapioca I was offered — and that I declined — was the grainy "pancake" that is most identified with Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, and that even many Brazilians outside of that state don’t know. It was only a few months ago, after a restaurant called Macaxeira — with the sign "Tapioca is our specialty!" — opened near us, that I finally tasted my first tapioca. I thought it was boring and bland and fairly pricey for what they offered. What’s the big deal? I thought. Then a friend of mine suggested with her wise smile that I try again, this time from one of the two street vendors here in town (if tapioca is known at all, it’s known as a street food). I couldn’t believe how good it was!

The tapioca cart in the center of town

Hurry, just a couple of bags left!
Then began the saga of our learning how to make tapioca at home, which included knowing what kind of flour to buy and where to find it. Again, not an easy task outside of Pernambuco. We learned that the special tapioca flour we needed was ready-made goma, but initial searches of the Búzios market shelves turned up empty. But we persisted, we asked around, and we finally found it in the one Búzios market that stocks it, Extra Supermarket (but even then it's hidden away in a corner of the store on a bottom shelf, as you can see from this picture).

Tapioca is absolutely the easiest thing to prepare, it’s good for breakfast, lunch, dinner and/or dessert. You can put anything, anything at all, in it or on it. Think crêpe, think tortilla, think arepa, think injera, think lavash — think tapioca! I don’t know if you can find the tapioca goma in the United States, or in Europe, or wherever you might be reading this, but if you do, here are the five easy steps:

1. Heat a small, teflon pan. You can put a little butter in the pan, or not.

2. Pour in about a half-cup of goma, or more, or less. (There are no rules.) Start spreading it out with a spoon until if flattens into a disk. It will start to "glue" together quickly.

3. Add your filling on one half of the disk. Hear we're doing banana with cinnamon.

       4. Fold the empty half over the filled half.

5. Serve.  (It does taste better, however, if you dish the dish and eat it with your hands.)

Here are some suggested fillings, but feel free to go wild:

For breakfast — plain butter, jelly, butter and cheese, just cheese, banana, banana with or without powdered cinnamon, any other fruit you want, scramble or fry or poach an egg, pour maple syrup on it, or honey, some fried bacon, or incorporate whatever you usually have for breakfast into the tapioca . . .

Lunch/Dinner — ham and cheese, other lunch meats or cooked leftover meats, strips of chicken, chicken salad, tuna salad, egg salad, make a BLT, tomato with mozzarella and oregano, roasted vegetables . . .

Dessert — chocolate sauce, nutella, doce de leite (dulce de leche up there in the States), shaved coconut, nuts, caramelized fruits, butterscotch sauce, whipped cream, ice cream, fruit syrups . . .

(Oh, and for those who care, tapioca goma is gluten-free!)


  1. Just wanted to say thanks for posting this. I was a bit intimidated (by the apparent ease and finding the right tapioca), but one day there was a lady in the grocery store making them and handing out samples. It looked as easy as you said. So last night we tried it with bananas and various fillings. So tasty! My husband says thanks!