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February 27, 2005
The all-in-one beverage and snack
One of the great things about spending time in another country is learning about new and unique foods. When I was living in Vancouver, Canada a few years ago, I became acquainted with bubble tea, an odd beverage that was rapidly becoming the rage across town. This strange concoction originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s, and in the last few years, it has spread all over Canada, into the United States and England, and across many other parts of the world.
Popping Some Bubbles
The term “bubble tea” is at best an unfortunate translation and at worst a euphemism. Alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…tapioca balls. These “bubbles” or “pearls” are dark brown, about one centimeter in diameter, slippery on the outside and very chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one.
Bubble tea comes in many flavors, with some of the more popular being almond, mango, chocolate, and my personal favorite, taro. You can also find red bean, coconut, lavender, and a number of tropical fruit flavors. Paradoxically, every outlet where I’ve seen bubble tea sold also offers it without the pearls—in some cases, you get them only by special request. That seems to me to be missing the point—but then, bubble tea is, for many, an acquired taste. Some people just can’t get past the idea of drinking squishy tapioca balls.
Personally, I loved bubble tea the first time I tried it, but opinions vary widely. I surveyed three of my close friends, who by sheer coincidence were all blond Canadian women. After trying bubble tea for the first time, 33% of my sample group said they enjoyed it and would drink it again. The other 67% said it was the most disgusting thing they had ever put in their mouths. Whatever other nuances could be read into that statement, my general impression was that they were not favorably disposed toward bubble tea. (One of these friends later said she had tried it again and thought it wasn’t so bad.) There’s no accounting for taste.
Pearls of Wisdom
If you want to make your own bubble tea, the most difficult part is locating the ingredients. First and foremost, you’ll need the tapioca pearls. You can sometimes find these in Chinese markets, sold dry in plastic bags rather like pasta. There are also, naturally, a number of online sources. Most pearls are dark brown, though I have seen them in various colors. To prepare them, you boil them in a generous amount of water for about a half hour, then turn off the heat and let them sit for another half hour. Rinse them, and they’re ready to go—or refrigerate them for later.
The tea itself is normally made by mixing a flavored powder with water and adding sweetened condensed milk (or, sometimes, nondairy creamer and a sugar syrup). Add ice and shake, pour the mixture into a glass with a generous portion of tapioca pearls at the bottom, and drink. There are numerous variations on this basic recipe, however. I’ve seen hot bubble tea, fruit juices with pearls, and even frozen bubble smoothies. In fact, just about any sort of beverage you can think of can be made into bubble tea. Strangely enough, actual tea is used only rarely as the base. For that matter, the so-called tapioca pearls are—if you want to be really nitpicky—not actually tapioca. They do have much the same consistency as tapioca, but the starch they’re made from comes from a type of sweet potato.
Bubble tea is not going to replace cola as the standard fast-food drink anytime soon. But every time I turn around I find another local shop that sells it, and the North American public is slowly but surely warming to the idea. Once you overcome the initial weirdness, it’s quite tasty. If your idea of a strong drink is a single-malt Scotch or a dark lager, try the drink that really has balls: bubble tea.—JK