Even though it’s only May, we enjoyed a little taste of summer last weekend here in Brooklyn. 80 degrees and sunny both Saturday and Sunday – who could ask for a more perfect weekend? The warmer weather inspired me to make this light dessert beverage that I’ve been thinking about and craving all week.
In Malaysia, this dessert is made with sago pearls. Since it’s near-impossible to get small sago pearls here in the US, I decided to give it a go with tapioca pearls. Sago and tapioca are interchangeable in most recipes, however I did find one major difference. With sago, as the little pearls cook and lose their opacity, one finds a lot of extra starch in the pot. When my Mum cooks sago, as soon as all the pearls become clear, she transfers it into fine-mesh sieve and runs it under a cold tap while mixing it with a wooden spoon to wash away all that extra starch. If this step is omitted, what you end up with is a dessert that is much too……. starchy, for lack of a better word. Ok, I’ll try a little harder – gluey, sticky, and lumpy! I can’t imagine anyone wanting a mouthful of glue with their dessert, can you? Tapioca pearls, on the other hand, cook without releasing much, if any, additional starch, and all one is left with are the dainty little pearls with a perfect bite. I still rinsed the cooked tapioca with cold water, but this was primarily to stop them from cooking further and turning into mush.
In Malaysia, this dessert is usually made with honeydew melon. You can imagine my dismay when, after going to every fruit vendor in Chinatown and in my own neighborhood in Brooklyn, I realized there was not a single honeydew melon to be found anywhere! Time for Plan B – I noticed lots of beautiful ripe cantaloupes everywhere and wondered if it was possible to make this dish with cantaloupe instead of honeydew? After all, a melon is a melon, right? Right, with one exception in this case – somehow I just couldn’t imagine this recipe working with watermelon – much too high water content and just not enough flavor. I decided to give it a try with the cantaloupe. If it didn’t work out, at the very least I would know not to be so reckless with my melons in the future!
It turned out perfectly and left me thinking about what other fruit I could use in this recipe. I hope you’ll make the trip to an Asian supermarket near you to get the tapioca pearls and try this dessert. It’s a perfect sweet for the coming hot summer days, and a lovely, light, refreshing end to a spicy meal. Try it with honeydew and mango as well. And here’s a bonus – it’s gluten-free!
Tapioca Pearls with Cantaloupe & Coconut (serves 10 – 12)
2 cups water
1 cup sugar
2 pandan leaves, knotted (optional)
One can coconut milk (or 2 cups if you have fresh coconut milk)
A pinch of salt
1 cup small tapioca pearls
1 ripe cantaloupe
1. Combine the water, sugar and pandan leaves in a medium pot. Bring to a boil and stir until the sugar is melted, about 2 minutes. Here’s a picture. The ingredients list above calls for the pandan leaves to be tied in a knot – see how decidedly unknotted my pandan leaves are? Somewhere in Malaysia, my mum is shaking her head at me! I believe the reason for tying them in a knot is merely to make it easy to remove them once they have served their purpose. What is their purpose, you ask? Pandan imparts a distinct, sweet, unlike-anything-else aroma to Malaysian favorites such as coconut rice, desserts and coconut egg jam. Egg JAM? What’s THAT? That’s yummy material for another blog post! Turn the heat down to low, add the coconut milk and a pinch of salt. Cook on low for another five minutes, then set aside to cool.
2. In a large pot, bring a quart and a half of water to a rolling boil. Add the tapioca pearls, and stir gently to make sure they don’t stick to the bottom of the pot. Continue to cook, stirring constantly for about five minutes. Turn the heat down to medium low and cook for an additional fifteen minutes, stirring frequently. The goal is to get the pearls to turn clear. Here’s a picture of my tapioca pearls half-cooked – see all the ones that are still opaque? That tells me that I need to keep this cooking.
3. Once most of the pearls are no longer opaque, transfer the tapioca into a fine-mesh sieve, and run cold water over it so that it cools down and stops cooking. You want cooked tapioca pearls that still have a pleasant bite to them and that are not just falling apart and adding starch to your dessert. It’s just like having al dente pasta instead of limp overcooked pasta! Ew, limp is just the worst word when it comes to cooking.
4. Slice cantaloupe in half – using a melon baller, make as many little melon balls as you can (or if you prefer, cut half the melon into little chunks). It doesn’t matter if you end up with one cup of these or two. I ended up with about three times as many as you see in this picture. Scoop the remaining cantaloupe out of the rind, and purée in a blender until liquefied.
Once the syrup and coconut mixture is fully cooled, remove the (hopefully knotted) pandan leaves and combine all the ingredients in a large bowl. Serve in small cups – your guests will come back for more! Happy Cooking and Happy Summer! – Auria
** Small tapioca pearls can be found at pretty much any Asian supermarket and even from most health food stores manufactured and packaged by Bob’s Red Mill.