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Bubble Tea

by Jacqueline M. Newman


Winter Volume: 1999 Issue: 6(4) page(s): 5 and 26

Hot in the world of tea, teenagers, and those a mite older are bubble tea and the tea houses that serve it, seems that tea made of Camellia sinensis, hot and plain, is on their back burner. On the front one they want things 'groovy' as one of them said and several agreed when queried in a western city. They were sprawled on tiny chairs around an even tinier table in one of these new-style tea houses. Chinese and with a Caucasian-American friend, they were spending lots of money, tasting tidbits, seeing, and being seen.

Did they really like what they were drinking? That question brought unsure glances. What exactly was the draw, I asked? That query resulted in even more blank faces among otherwise very verbal, totally fluent in English, ABCs (American-born Chinese). They could not express why, but there they were consuming lots of black balls at the bottom of see-through plastic containers. Each one ordered was different, each made of they knew not what. There they were, enjoying teas of the nineties, passing glasses 'round and 'round tasting each others (not a healthy idea). They advised that they taste all, and always do so in order to drink different teas with their afternoon snacks.

Their love of bubbles is not new. Recently there was a conference about them where they discussed this 'ideal ingredient' that is 'inexpensive, versatile, non-toxic, and non-fattening.' This professional gathering detailed foods and beverages and knowledge and research about them. Eagen Press of St Paul MN released a book titled Bubbles in Food about this international conference, and for the record, not one chapter or paper was devoted to bubble tea.

What are these black balls that are used in tea and other beverages? A reporter for the New York Times told her readers that the balls are made from cassava and that they are not available in New York City. That comment bats but five hundred as they are made from Manihot esculents, a root known by a slew of other names that include yuca, manioc, manoic, arrowroot, and cassava. Did she know that the balls are not made from its leaves, which can be boiled like any green vegetable or used to wrap foods?

We know that they are made from a flour, most frequently called tapioca, after the root is peeled and grated and the juice extracted. The remaining pulp is soaked in water and then kneaded to release the starch. This processing is important to aid in preservation of this food. It also improves palatability and reduces the cyanogenic toxicity known to exist in this raw root.

The flour can be compressed into brown or white balls or cakes and can be made pregelatinized or not, as needed. When round, they are known as tapioca pearls. In powdered form this starch, which can also be a flour, is used as a thickener. It can be mixed with other flours and used to make noodles, is popular in soups and sauces, and is used in pancakes, among other foods. The processing actually varies from region to region and can include peeling, soaking, grating, pressing, millling, fermenting, and more.

This root did not originate in China but came there from Manila via Java and the Philippines. In the 1800's it had made its way to Taiwan and China and became popular in southern regions. It is probably the most important food crop in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the world and is the major source of dietary energy for more than five million people. In Asia it provides about six percent of calories consumed. It is most popular as flour, balls, granules, flakes, and pellets.

The tapioca pearls used to make the shiny black balls in bubble tea are dark brown and boiled for about two hours. In the process, they become quite shinny because all tapioca becomes translucent when cooked. After cooking, they are cooled and kept in clear water, preferably boiled and chilled, until used. Some of the balls are small and lighter in color than others, some are even rather clear. They can be found floating in sweet drinks in many parts of Southeast Asia, and as grass jelly they are used for some dim sum foods, and for Malaysians you find then in a dessert called ABCs.

The balls used for bubble tea come mostly from Taiwan. They are the size of a large fresh green pea and they expand when cooked. The balls when cooked and cooled for tea are added before any liquid is poured into the glass. They do not float. Using tapioca for dim sum, balls are not used. Rather the uncompressed flour is mixed with hot water and cooked. It is then poured in a jelly-roll-type pan, about one-quarter inch deep, and left to set. The resulting gel is rolled and cut into serving pieces. You probably have seen them on a dim sum wagon but did not know what they were. In this form they are not popular, but in tea they are loved.

In China, this root is cultivated in Hainan, and in Pearl River villages with an annual production of about six million tons. Though so much is produced, little is known. There is much confusion and one such is whether it is a root or a tuber. K.C. Chang speaks of it as arrowroot (Sagittaria sagittifolia), and says the Chinese call it fu. Many researchers say it was seen in San Francisco imported from China, circa 1899, Blasdale, who worked for and wrote for the USDA, said in that same year that it was Sagittaria sinensis. Both meant the corm commonly known as arrowhead. They did not speak about the arrowroot that the black bubbles of this discussion are made of. Even though used minimally in foods, the Chinese regard arrowroot plants highly because of their resemblance to ginseng (Panax ginseng). They believe it has medicinal value. They also enjoy its flowers and grow them in water as they do narcissus. They eat the root plain, too, chopping then cooking it as they do pork or slicing it and frying it as one would potato chips.

Bubble teas can be found in cities on both coasts of the United States, in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. In the Toronto suburb of Markham, there is one Bubble Tea House at 4300 Steeles Avenue East--905/305-0406. They sell nine drinks made with black tea, ten made with green tea, and a dozen others that they simply call milk tea. Actually, not all come with bubbles, but for fifty cents extra you can have them put in Lemon Tea, Honey Tea, Apple Tea, Strawberry Tea, Green Bean Milk, Wheat Milk Tea, Strawberry Milk Tea, or their many other beverage selections.

At the same mall is a place called The Tea Stop, also at 4300 Steeles Avenue East. Their menu has thirty-six selections. A third of them can be had with bubbles or tapioca in another form. For fifty cents extra, in any one of the cold ones, bubbles can be added, too. Their selections are more creative and include Grass Jelly Drink, Green Tea with Cream and Papaya Flavor, Lemon Coke with Tapioca, even Iced Coffee with bubbles. The one thing you can not have there or anywhere are bubbles in a hot drink as they will slowly dissolve away.

The first place to have Bubble Tea on the East coast was Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Company. Their written selections are meager and not all their stores sell it, but the one in Flushing does. It can often meet requests, that is if it for any kind of tea they sell with or without sugar, cream, bubbles, and added flavors. They will even make you one with flavors and bubbles and no tea, should you so desire.

Most places are set up for take-out but also have a few chairs or stools for short-term use. The newest kid on the block, so to speak, is the Saint's Alp Teahouse at 51 Mott Street in Manhattan's Chinatown (212/766-9889). They have a good sized eat-in area with a dozen little rose-wood-like tables and similarly fashioned square stools. Their menu is the most extensive of any we've visited. They are a chain, couldn't learn if they are franchised, but do assume so, and their locations are most widespread. They are in Hong Kong, China, Taiwan where they originated, and now in New York. The menu shows forty-six outlets plus the one in the United States.

The menu, clearly now specifically printed for the New York store, says 'Saint's Alp is the pioneer in bringing genuine Taiwanese Frothy Tea with Pearl Tapioca in Hong Kong.' The eighty-three items on it offer eleven frothy-tea selections with tapioca, seven green and nine black tea combinations, ten milk teas, five milk shakes, five green barley beverages, seven regular specials, and six classical specials such as Lychee Nectar with Nata de Coco.

To go with their beverages, they have five toast selections, eleven cake and jelly choices, and seven Taiwanese delicacies including Flavored Tea Eggs, Deep-fried Chicken Chunks with Spices, Dumplings with or without meat (pork), and Deep-fried Cuttle Fish Balls, Thhis latter item was on half of the tables on our last visit, and these light brown balls were being consumed with gusto. Their wide range of preparations are integrations of east and west which they call 'remarkable and unique in both outlook and tastiness.' The menu advises that 'nutritional Pearl Tapioca' is a unique beadlike formula 'extracted from sweet potato, cassava root and brown sugar.'

Now that you know what Bubble Tea is, try what some have called 'Chinese cola' and others 'the item that requires the rewriting of tea history.' One person actually dubbed it 'the McChildren's drink of the decade,' while another said it is 'the youth drink for when you hang out.' You will never know unless you sample the bubbles that Liu Han-Chieh brought to Taiwan in 1983. We can attest that we elders enjoyed what young and young at heart are drinking at tea and shake shops all over Taiwan and Hong Kong. Though Saint's Alp is most widespread, do not think it is the largest such company. One of the chains, the Hsiao Hsieh Tea Shops, has more than a hundred branches in Taiwan.

Go to one of them and sip bubble tea through exceptionally wide straws, it is refreshing. Or go to a Chinese supermarket and buy the dried balls, then cook and cool them, and make your own. They are a hit on ice cream. One friend advises that she uses grass-jelly (also a cassava/tapioca product to form letters on cakes wishing happy birthday, anniversary, and other greetings and then decorates the cake with balls randomly dropped around the writing. Try that, too, or invent your own ways; the bubbles are meant to be light-hearted.

Should black bubbles not be your thing, try a tea with carbonated bubbles, another popular tea of the moment. There are dozen of varieties in cans, some with carbonated bubbles, others bubble-free. Enjoy any kind of bubble in or out of your tea. And as for the black bubbles, we are planning to use them for both the under-aged folk and those who see them as added fun. They will help us welcome in the year 2000.

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