Megan Li | Assistant Editor of Humanities
With about 83% of American adults consuming it annually, coffee has become a major aspect of the American way of life, being consumed for study, caffeination, and relaxation. But this staple is facing competition from a curiously unique, highly customizable, and increasingly popular drink from Taiwan – boba tea. Despite all that customizability, what makes this tea truly unique, however, is the complex process required for the boba balls that defines and (quite literally) shapes the drink.
Invented in the 1980s, boba tea is a Taiwanese drink that has gained massive popularity in the United States and abroad – Kung Fu Tea has locations in over 20 states, GongCha has 1,100 stores internationally, and CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice is expanding to the east and west coasts of the United States.
Step into any boba tea shop, and menus on the wall will describe a unique ordering experience: select a tea-base (green tea, classic milk tea, or even pineapple tea), and then carefully pick toppings (lychee jelly, aloe vera, or go classic with tapioca pearls!). Customers can even decide how icy or sweet their beverage will be.
Many people new to the experience, however, may find themselves pausing at one particular topping: what in the world are tapioca balls? Tapioca is a starch made from cassava root (also called yuca and manioc) native to South America and the Caribbean. This starchy plant, vital to the diets of Mesoamericans, was introduced to Asia sometime in the 19th century, and quickly became an ordinary item used both in the cuisine and textiles. Nowadays, because of its unique texture and taste, tapioca is a common ingredient in many gluten-free, manufactured goods as a thickening agent.
But how does starch from a plant root turn into the squishy balls that perfect and finish the milk tea beverage experience? First, harvesters must first peel the tubers (the thickened part of the underground stem of a plant). The peel is especially rich in linamarin, a toxin which can increase one’s risk of developing diabetes or glucose intolerance, and thus is removed. Next, everything must be ground into a pulp, soaked, squeezed dry, and then heated. This process produces a flour which then must be treated for an additional toxin: lotaustralin. This substance is categorized as a cyanogenic glycoside, which is considered highly poisonous to most living organisms because it inhibits the electron transport system by binding to cytochromes. After being ground and soaked, a starch is formed from which the beloved tapioca pearls can be formed. After gelatinizing, the starch will clump and be heated to about 60°C to form the small spheres. The pearls are then rehydrated in syrupy, warm water for about 20 minutes, during which changes in heat and humidity need to be carefully maintained due to the pearls’ sensitive nature. That massive process culminates in the soft, squishy, and infinitely delicious tapioca pearl which can now serve as the perfect final touch to a unique glass of milk tea.
Boba tea is truly a foodie experience rivaled by no other. For about $4, each customer can sip rich milk tea and chew tender tapioca balls at the same time. Each boba tea chain or individually owned store has their own secret recipe to making their boba so addicting, so the drink will never quite be the same. Enjoy the rich history of tapioca pearls, and revel in the science behind their quali-tea creation. So get out your phones and straws – Snapchat and Instagram are waiting for your boba tea snapshots.
Featured photo from The Daily Meal