In the mountains of Taiwan, farmers grow the most delicate oolong tea in the world. Priced at hundreds of dollars per pound, it is savored by connoisseurs to whom it speaks with all the silences and shadings of Tang poetry. On the streets of Taipei, there is another kind of connoisseur—of a sort. Picture an iPod-wired teenager carrying a big milkshakey thing and slurping what look like marbles through a fat straw. No sight in Taiwan is more commonplace. The teenager is enjoying zhen zhu nai cha ("pearl milk tea"), known in the West, where its popularity steadily grows, as bubble tea.
When I first visited Taiwan in 1998, I was intrigued by this exotic street drink and downed far too much of it, not realizing its caloric wallop. The tea itself is beside the point. The allure, as with cotton candy, is tactile. The straw roots amid ice until it locates a large ball of black tapioca; the tapioca is drawn into the vacuum of the straw and shoots into the mouth, arriving with the surprising suddenness of a pneumatic delivery. The fun is the unlikely accelerando of the tapioca entering the mouth in contrast with the ritardando of the chewy ball once it arrives. The mouth enjoys the wit of the incongruity.
Dressed in sweet syrup and ladled onto paper-platefuls of shaved ice, black tapioca has long been a staple of Taiwanese street food. During the 1980s, according to legend, a small teahouse in Taichung called Chun Shui Tang ("spring water") redeployed the tapioca as a tea adornment, presumably realizing the appeal of its weird kinetics.
My wife and I visited this ground zero of world bubble tea culture. I remember a warren of small, dim rooms, all neatly appointed with Japanese-style paper windows and bamboo trim. An interior decorator had clearly been called in; in scruffy, derelict Taiwan, this is the sure sign that somebody has made a culinary breakthrough and earned enough money to wipe the dust of the street from their shoes. The famous drink was served in the kind of tall, fluted parfait glasses in which American ice cream sundaes are often served. It was frothy and rich, the tapioca flawlessly al dente. I knew that I was imbibing a classic. Groping for a cultural analogy, I thought of the "frozen hot chocolate" served at Serendipity in New York, another triumph of what wine and beer aficionados call "mouthfeel."
If this was the ur-example of bubble tea, its spawn was everywhere. Then as now, the Taiwanese were crazy for zhen zhu nai cha. Small stands on nearly every street corner sold their own versions, and the Taiwanese serially downed Styrofoam cupfuls in the attempt to cool themselves during the furnace days of summer. Zhen zhu nai cha had also made a splash in Hong Kong, where the locals redubbed it boba ("big breasts") in honor of the siliconic tapioca.
In the years since this first visit, I have leveraged my countless good deeds as a husband and prevailed on my wife to develop a facsimile of the bubble tea served at Chun Shui Tang. Preparing the milk tea poses no particular difficulty. The challenge is cooking the tapioca. It must be what the Taiwanese onomatopoetically call "q-q"—springy, but not mushy or gummy. Then too, tapioca of this sort easily burns if allowed to settle on the bottom of the pot, turning milk tea into what tastes like runoff from an extinguished campfire.
Finally, Westerners must conquer their aversion to nondairy creamer (i.e., Coffee-mate), which is the universal whitener in the milk-free culture of Taiwan. Cream would be cloying, if not sickening, in the necessary quantities and in the brutal heat. Creamer lends richness without adding heaviness or viscosity; the drink remains refreshing even in the swelter of urban Asia.
Zhen zhu nai cha can be found throughout the Triangle. Grand Asia Market in Cary (1253 Buck Jones Road, 468-2988, www.grandasiamarket.com) and Chill Bubble Tea in Chapel Hill (145 E. Franklin St., 338-2472, www.chillbubbletea.com) serve reasonable versions, but home cooks should have little trouble perfecting their own for pennies on the dollar.
Makes four servings
1 package (7 ounces) dried tapioca, not instant (see cook's note)
3/4 cup sugar, divided (see cook's note)
8 cups brewed black tea (see cook's note)
1 1/2 cups powdered nondairy creamer (i.e., Coffee-mate)
Crushed ice or ice cubes
For the tapioca: Bring 10 cups water to a rolling boil in a heavy nonstick pot. Add the tapioca. Boil for 10 minutes. Turn off heat. Cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Boil for another 10 minutes. Cover and let rest for another 30 minutes. Repeat the process a third time. Drain and add 2 tablespoons sugar to the hot tapioca. Use immediately.
For the tea: Refrigerate the tea until well chilled. Combine two cups cold tea, 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar and 6 tablespoons Coffee-mate in a closed container. Shake vigorously, cocktail style, until dissolved, or mix in a blender. Fill a tall glass with 1/2 cup cooked tapioca and plenty of ice. Add the tea. Serve with a wide-bore straw (see cook's notes).
Cook's notes: Be sure to purchase dried rather than instant tapioca. Dried tapioca balls are shrunken, hard and brown, blackening as they cook. Look for Sunlight brand "starchballs" at local Chinese grocery stores.
Zhen zhu nai cha is usually made with black tea, presumably because green tea does not go with creamer. Any black tea will do ("the cheapest possible" is the commercial principle, according to my wife). My brother-in-law, who owns a coffee house in Taipei, uses Lipton. Of course, a slightly better black tea—Twinings English breakfast, for example—could not hurt, and a chocolate- or chai-flavored tea might lend an appealing note.
The tapioca is fully cooked just as the white dot at the center disappears (rather like spaghetti). The resting periods may require slight adjustment in order to achieve the desired al dente effect. Twenty-five to 30 minutes should be about right.
The tapioca can be sucked only through special straws (diameter: 7/16 inch). These are available at most Chinese grocery stores.