Finally, a Bubble That Doesn't Pop

What's Sweeter Than a Tech Bubble and Frothier Than a Real Estate Bubble?

The answer to the latter extremely important question is yes. Much like flavorless tofu, the tapioca can be as versatile as the substances it is paired with. For a less candy-colored version, the key is to opt for something that is unblended and fruit-free. So, on my second Tea Garden round I tried the jasmine tea shaken with some nondairy creamer, sugar, and ice. Though there were still dancing dew-eyed rodents on the lid, the mix inside was more mature.

The iced jasmine tea was light in sweetness, and subtly tasted the way jasmine flowers smell—a pleasant mix of the senses. The bubbles themselves had also slightly changed, reminding me more of light desserts such as rice or tapioca pudding rather than a candy-store gummi bonanza. The effect of the drink was also less sugar-induced spazz attack, and more highly caffeinated conversation frenzy. My friend and I soon found ourselves talking about the Bay of Pigs, documented stories of spontaneous combustion, and the joys of root canals all in one 30-minute sitting— typical adult coffeehouse chatter.

One mystery that we didn't solve is where the hell this stuff came from. For that, I had to turn to Tea Garden manager Nick Nguyen. He reports that the drink had humble beginnings in 1980s Taiwan, where it was sold by street vendors outside of schools. It was tapioca-free, the "bubble" name actually referring to the bubbles that occur when fruit juice and tea is shaken into an effervescent mix. (Apparently, traditionalists still hew to the line.) In later years, the inclusion of tapioca created a double-bubble effect.

If this straw were any bigger, the Saudis would use it to move oil
Jayme Halbritter
If this straw were any bigger, the Saudis would use it to move oil

The drink's popularity, Nguyen reports, began to grow throughout Asia, Europe, and then the States in the mid-'90s, appearing in areas with dense Asian populations, including New York, San Francisco, and Texas. I asked him if he has observed any resentment or snobbery within the tea purist community—all these years with coffee as the rock star of the caffeinated world, only to have a kind of novelty tea drink make it into the top 10.

"I can understand the resentment from hardcore tea drinkers," Nguyen agrees, "but I don't see what's wrong with it as long as it gets them into tea."

 

A tea fanatic myself, I became ambitious later that week and decided to try to make my own bubble tea. Although you can probably buy the larger pearls at a specialty grocer (Shuang Hur Oriental Market, on Nicollet Avenue, sells them for less than a dollar a bag), I arranged a trade with my friend: her bag of bubble tea pearls that had been sitting in her cabinet all summer for my bag of mung beans, which have moldered in my cabinet for years. Yet little did I know that the task before me was far more difficult than I originally anticipated.

My first batch of tapioca was a fiasco. After some 15 or 20 minutes of boiling pearls in the water, I gazed into the pan to find the gray balls gazing up at me in swollen alarm, twice their size and beginning to dissolve into a sludge like something a frog would give birth to. I overcompensated and undercooked the second batch. Third time around, I managed to come up with something passable, though not necessarily pretty, as the pearls seem to dissolve quickly even if prepared properly. (Many restaurants run the pearls under cold water, then store them in cold sugar water until use—though they won't store long.)

I think the lesson to be learned from this experience is that, much like homemade sushi, it's probably something one can pull off with a little practice. But there are potential disasters along the way. Those willing to travel along this culinary path might want to take a moment to consider if it's really worth it when you can have someone make it for you professionally down the street.

 

Jessica's Double, Double Toil and Trouble Bubble Tea

• 1 part crushed ice
• 1 part chilled tea (high quality is important—jasmine, green, or black tea will work well)
• 1 part milk, rice dream, soy milk, or nondairy creamer
• Sugar, honey, or simple syrup to taste
• 1/2 cup chilled tapioca pearls

 

Place the pearls in the bottom of a large glass (I used a pint glass, but a parfait glass would work well too). Put all other ingredients in a cocktail shaker and agitate vigorously until the mixture is frothy. For a thicker mix pour into a blender until ice is shattered. Pour into the glass, and serve with extra-thick straws.

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