Mall of America
Bravo! Café and Bakery
1106 Grand Ave., St. Paul
The first time my grandmother ever tried bubble tea, she choked violently on the first sip. This is apparently not uncommon, I later learned from several friends. How can a nonalcoholic beverage be so dangerous? Apparently, it's the bubbles, or boba—marble-sized balls of black tapioca that rest at the bottom of the beverage and quickly travel up an oversized straw made specifically for consuming bubble tea. If you're not prepared, the gelatinous pearls can be a choking hazard.
Friends also warned me that bubble tea has been invading U.S. malls for the past five years or so and that while often people find the gummy/super-sweet combo to be repugnant at first, it quickly becomes massively addictive. I was thankful (though dubious) to have been warned before my adventure began.
My bubble tea innocence was lost at the Tea Garden, a sunny, cute specialty tea store on 26th and Hennepin in Uptown. As with any first-timers, my friend and I felt overwhelmed almost immediately and had many questions upon gazing at the drink menu, which was double-sided and laminated with lists grouped into several categories and subcategories. Our server seemed as stunned and confused as we were. She valiantly struggled to answer our questions, though she was a new employee and had only just begun to understand the baffling cult of bubble tea.
After careful consideration I selected a fruity shake-style option, made with guava concentrate. My friend was decidedly more ambitious and chose to mix the cherry and almond concentrates together. What arrived after a few minutes of blending were pastel-colored drinks with a sherbet-like consistency. I slammed the enormous straw through the vacuum seal—which comes with Japanese writing and dancing bunnies with enormous, hopeful eyes—and carefully took a sip. To my elation, my bubbles traveled up the straw smoothly and without a choking or clogging incident. I can't say that the bubbles added much to the taste of the mixture; they're mildly sweet, but mostly flavorless.
My friend, who was unimpressed, likened them to eating rodent eyeballs. Personally, I was a little more forgiving, and found the overall experience to be like drinking candy, and the gumminess of the bubbles only added to the effect. In fact, despite the newness of the drink, I found myself feeling nostalgic—as if each little bubble were a childhood memory of a girlhood spent playing Candyland, watching Rainbow Bright, and shopping in the nickel bin of Hello Kitty. I also suddenly felt the need to play something colorful on my Gamecube.
But this was only the beginning of my journey through bubble-dom. After some trips around town (and a second glance at the Tea Garden menu), I soon realized that this fruity-shake was but one of many possible takes on the drink.
Here's the deal: First, there's always the tapioca pearl base (a.k.a. the "bubbles"). Generally, these pearls are about the size of a large blueberry and, being unbleached, are darker than regular tapioca. They often consist of naturally gelatinous components like agar-agar, which is seaweed-based. (Some places also offer mega-fruit-flavored pearls that are more like ball-shaped gummi bears.)
Next is the tea aspect of the drink, which can vary wildly depending on location. Some places whip up house teas or chai with milk or nondairy creamer, sugar or simple syrup, and ice. The result here is something that has a thick, slushy, coffee-cooler consistency. There's also a thinner variety, which involves iced or hot tea or chai with sugar. This version I sampled at Bravo! Café and Bakery—a super tiny but very cute vegetarian restaurant on Grand Avenue in St. Paul—which serves its bubble tea hot or cold but always tasty and unfussy in a Dixie coffee cup ($3.75, large). The tea is creamy and rich, and it goes very well with their crème puffs—delicious balls of fluffy, crumbly dough stuffed with thick vanilla cream worth every penny of their $1.25 price.
I also discovered this thinner bubble tea variety while wandering around the Mall of America amid a capitalistic Christmas coma. The place was Teavana, a friendly yet vaguely pretentious mall shop. Although it's not always available on the menu, normally you can pick your tea from their crazy-wide variety with your choice of dairy or soy milk ($3.95).
Finally, another bubble tea offshoot avoids the tea altogether and mixes ice and fruit syrups into something resembling a fruit-flavored (yet fruit-free) smoothie, which is what I had on my first try at the Tea Garden. Most are made in either a cocktail shaker or a blender. And although not all places use the same ingredients, some use nondairy creamer and natural fruit extracts, so the drink can be made vegan.
I later returned to the Tea Garden in search of a more sophisticated bubble tea experience. Is it a drink mostly enjoyed in a whimsical, childish sort of way? Or could older folks who abhor the mega-mall, pastel-kitten culture also appreciate bubble tea?
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.
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.