Photo/IllutrationBubble tea, or milk tea with tapioca balls, is highly popular in Japan. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

While I was in Taiwan last month on a reporting assignment, someone asked me out of the blue: "Have you Japanese changed your staple food from rice to tapioca?"

The person was referring to the recent Japanese craze for bubble tea, which contains tapioca balls produced in Taiwan.

I visited Fong Chen Frozen Food Co., whose plant in southern Taiwan that exports to Japan is in operation 24 hours a day.

"We can't keep up with the demand from Japan even with additional facilities. I've never been this busy in my entire life," Chiang Coco, 60, who operates the company, said happily.

Black tapioca balls--or pearls--in bubble tea are made from a starch extracted from the roots of the cassava plant.

I was surprised to learn that almost all the ingredients processed in Taiwan are imported from Thailand.

In the cool factory, the production lines were literally hopping with black pearls, which were being packaged in bags for the Japanese market.

Tapioca is a traditional dessert in Taiwan.

"I've enjoyed it, boiled in a big pot, ever since I was a small child," said a woman in her 60s.

Bubble tea, which is tapioca in iced milk tea, debuted on the market in the mid-1980s. In colder weather, bubble tea is served hot. The drink appears to be very much a part of everyday life in Taiwan.

According to Makiko Nagatomo, a food culture researcher at Doshisha Women's College of Liberal Arts, tapioca has a long history in Japan, too.

Known as a luxury food item in the mid-Meiji Era (1868-1912), it was mentioned in cookbooks in the ensuing Taisho Era (1912-1926).

During World War II, it was served to Japanese soldiers on the front as a rice substitute. After the war, it came to be used in food processing.

Choei Takano (1804-1850), a prominent scholar of "rangaku" (Western learning) in the late Edo Period (1603-1867), transliterated tapioca into kanji characters in his Japanese translation of a European book on medicine.

I used to think tapioca was a temporary fad item, but I was obviously mistaken: It was always with us.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.