The New Look of Teatime
In its simplest form, ultratrendy bubble tea is a mixture of black tea, milk or nondairy creamer, and sugar syrup poured over large tapioca balls that look like marbles. (“Bubble” refers to both the foam on top and the chewy beads resting at the bottom of the glass).
Tea connoisseurs might scoff at the jumbo straw that is a signature part of the presentation, or the sensation of simultaneously drinking tea and chewing pieces of tapioca just a tad smaller and softer than gummi bears. Apparently, though, a lot of people like having something to chew on as they sip. Boba tea, as the beverage is sometimes called, has bubbled over and beyond its Chinatown beginnings and is set to become the next chai, or maybe even the next Frappuccino (watch out, Starbucks).
Bubble drinks lack the caffeine jolt of a latte. The kick they offer to a health-conscious public intrigued by all things Asian is a hefty dose of flavonoids — powerful antioxidants that help neutralize disease-promoting free radicals, which can damage cells. The latest studies show that these substances in tea may reduce the risk of colon cancer in women and can help protect against heart attack and stroke. Less-processed green and white teas contain the highest levels of some flavonoids, but everyday black tea has them, too. Bubble tea began as an after-school treat for children in Taiwan during the mid-1980s. It became a hit with teens and then migrated to other Asian countries. A few years ago, bubble drinks made their way to America, and long lines began to form outside small booths and cafés in the Chinatowns of major cities on both coasts.
The foamy potables (about $2.50 each) are more widely available now, in the food courts of shopping malls as well as Eastern-themed cafés and juice bars, where blenders are at a constant roar. Once the province of young Asian hipsters, bubble tea has become big business. “In large cities, people are more open to new things,” observes restaurateur Steven Pyun, whose Sago Tea Café franchise started two years ago and is still growing. “The amount of tea-making supplies coming into the United States now is exploding.”
Bubble drinks come in flavors and colors that put Baskin-Robbins ice cream to shame: They’re frothy pink, green, purple, and orange; they taste of taro, coconut, ginger, lavender, and coffee. The pearls that seem to dance at the bottom of the glass are made with tapioca flour, which comes from the root of the cassava plant (think of the beads as larger versions of those used in tapioca pudding). Some are white, and others are tinted with green tea, but black sago tapioca, which gets its hue from caramel, is most common. Before cooking, the pellets resemble kibble; afterward, they become soft, like an al dente Jell-O. The starchy pebbles deliver pure enjoyment, offering little nutritional value.
But you’ll get pleasure, flavonoids, and lots of vitamins if you make your bubble drink with fresh fruit. Drinks that contain milk add calcium to the list of benefits. Plenty of options exist for the lactose-intolerant, though (many people of Asian descent have trouble digesting dairy). Most bubble-tea bars offer almond, soy, or coconut milk as well as nondairy creamer.
Labeling these drinks as health food may be pushing it: Flavonoids, vitamins, and calcium notwithstanding, the sugar content in some bubble teas can be sky-high. Consider the beverage a refreshing treat that’s healthier for you than a diet soda or a fat-laden milk shake. Even better, consider it a great excuse for a party. Several companies sell home kits, complete with teas, tapioca pearls, flavor powders, and fat straws. To make your own, see our recipes and sources.