There is something slightly childish about bubble tea. It seems like a rather purposeless drink, designed neither to awake, nor calm, nor nourish, nor give a requisite afternoon burst of energy, nor intoxicate. It is, quite simply, fun. It involves a sweet milk (or soy) tea or a fruit-based drink, a really big straw, and sweet, chewy, gummy tapioca balls which are consumed using the big straw (the “pearls”). The problem is, that it’s extremely addictive.
There was a Thai and Japanese takeout place near where I lived catering primarily to college students and professors, which also had a bubble tea bar. And it all went downhill from there. There was something about the soothing, aromatic flavor of jasmine tea, creamy and lightly sweetened, together with the expectancy of the irresistible treat of the tapioca pearls, which, having been soaked in syrup, were like candy. It opened up a need I didn’t know I had, and which could only be satisfied with more bubble tea.
During the day, when the bubble tea bar was out of reach, I found a bubble tea shop near my school. There I'd get one to last me through a long lecture surrounded by students, heads down absorbed into their laptop screens, their key strokes recording the lecture with a stenographer’s precision (or, more frequently, using g-chat) which filled the room with an insect-like buzz. And the place where I worked being too close to Chinatown to pass up the opportunity, I inevitably sought out a shop, marked with Chinese characters, with only a small parenthetical in English that said "(Bubble-tea)". There, I unabashedly accosted a shopkeeper who tried to speak to me in Chinese, getting my message across that I must absolutely have bubble tea. I think I got charged extra, but it made a long afternoon of research much more rewarding.
And now to my absolute delight I have found a place nearby that not only has a café which serves bubble tea, but has an adjacent Asian foods supermarket (which has become my source of, inter alia, Sriracha sauce, soba noodles, kimchi, various teas, and the occasional durian).
Trying to cut out the retail cost of the drink, we went out looking for the black tapioca pearls to make our own bubble tea. Navigating our way around people quickly zipping between the aisles and grabbing products they can’t get anywhere else, and stumbling on an occasional wide-eyed and bewildered face (the regulars versus curiosity seekers), we found ourselves in a spice aisle looking at small round white spheres labeled “tapioca” next to some clear bags with hairy mushrooms. But that wasn’t it. We looked in the tea section, but all we found besides tea was seaweed soup.
Tony saw a man checking off items off a clipboard who was wearing denim-on-denim, and asked him where we might find tapioca pearls for bubble tea, pointing to the bag with the white ones that we found. He mumbled something, then shook his head. Then he said, “This you have to cook for a long time. Eleven.” And he resumed looking at his list. We remained there, inspecting the package, puzzled. Eleven minutes to cook it, eleven hours? It took us a minute, and for him to repeat it, to realize that he meant what we were looking for was in aisle eleven. "Aisle eleven, eleven," he said impatiently as we scattered off. And there it was, in the refrigerated section, the only place we hadn't looked, because the tapioca pearls made specifically for bubble tea aren’t fully dehydrated.
There were black, green and multi-colored pearls. We grabbed several packets and went home. We made the tea, and realized we didn’t have any straws to consume the pearls with (we used teaspoons).
Next weekend, we came back to the shop, and lurking from aisle to aisle, looking for bubble tea straws (with a package of the pearls already in our basket) ran into the same guy. Tony showed him the package of the pearls and asked about the straw. The man looked at the package, and said, “you have to cook a long time.” Tony shook his head and held an imaginary straw to his lips. The man understood and made a gesture to follow him. He brought us to a section for kitchen supplies. There were, among chopsticks and teacups, regular straws, but not bubble tea ones. He looked through the shelves frantically then shook his head saying, “We are out.” When we were about to thank him and go on our way, he had an idea. He made a gesture again to follow us and brought us to the adjacent café. He spoke with the woman behind the counter in Chinese, who looked skeptically at him and then at us. After a few moments of persuasion on his part, she showed us a bag with the straws they would have used to serve with the tea, and said, “Okay, this is five dollars. There are a lot of straws.” Although we knew we could have gotten them online, both she and we understood the value of having something versus having it now. So we bought the straws from her and thanked the man.
We checked out the rest of our items, which consisted in no particular order of Chinese sausages, a package full of tiny hot red peppers, seaweed, pickled radish, oolong, jasmine, and horny goat teas (a story for another day), to the slightly intrigued look of the cashier with a trendy pixie-cut at the check-out counter.
Jasmine Bubble Tea
You will need:
1/2 cup black tapioca pearls (available at Asian markets)
1-2 tbsp agave (or other) syrup, more if desired
24 oz brewed jasmine green tea, cooled
1/4 cup soy milk
1. Bring a small pot of water to a boil. Add tapioca pearls and stir to prevent them from sticking (they will sink to the bottom before floating up to the surface). Reduce to a simmer and cook until desired chewiness, 10-15 minutes. Drain and rinse under cold water to cool. Place in a small bowl and add the agave syrup. Mix and let stand for about 10 minutes to let the pearls absorb the sweetness.
2. Spoon the pearls into two tall glasses, dividing evenly, followed by the tea and soy milk. Add more syrup for desired sweetness. Add the ice and stir well. Serve with a bubble tea straw or a spoon.