As a child growing up in China, Sonia Tang remembers one of her favorite after-school snacks was a bowl of yam balls topped with shaved ice and sweetened cream.
Now, as owner of Taiwan Express, Tang has found a new market for her old childhood treat. These days, though, the balls are dumped into a sweet, flavored drink to make a concoction that's sometimes called pearl tea and sometimes called bubble tea. Tang calls them boba drinks.
Pearl tea, which is usually made with tapioca balls, has recently been converging on Arizona from both coasts. Chic cafes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Seattle are serving this tantalizingly sweet novelty drink.
It's still a bit hard to find here. Besides Tang's shop at 99 Ranch Market (at the Chinese Cultural Center), we've seen it on the menu at the Aosis cyber cafe on University in Tempe, and had it once at a Vietnamese restaurant down the street; a much different scene than L.A. or San Francisco, where the drink is so popular that Web sites have sprung up touting favorite places and favorite flavors.
Pearl tea is thought to have originated in Taiwan about 10 years ago, although the popularity of the drink among the Taiwanese is somewhat of an enigma because the Chinese do not usually take their tea with milk nor do they generally drink their tea very sweet.
The rubbery pearls -- about the size of a Milk Dud -- are mixed in the sweet, cold drink and are sucked up through a specially made extra-wide straw that allows you to sip and chew at the same time. The tapioca balls are actually flavorless (they're made from a starch that comes from the cassava root) and have a consistency somewhat like gummy bears. They're a bit sticky, very filling and definitely habit-forming.
The drink, which sells for about $2 a glass around town, comes in lots of flavors; in more hip burgs, new flavors and recipes seem to be appearing routinely. Probably the most common drink mixes the pearls with Thai iced tea or iced coffee. The pearl drinks are also sometimes flavored with almond and coconut or come as a fruit drink -- mango, passion fruit, peach.
Tang prepares her drinks by mixing a fruit concentrate with simple syrup or honey for extra sweetness. Then she adds water, shakes the mixture with shaved ice and pours it over the cooked balls.
Tang makes her own pearls and uses yam starch (made from sweet potato flour). She refers to her pearls as yam balls. The balls are difficult and time-consuming to prepare; lots of pot watching is necessary to ensure that they don't turn into a coagulated mess.
Tang cooks her yam balls slowly in water for about an hour. She says that the yam balls are only good for four hours after they are cooked because they become too sticky if kept longer. But the drink has drawn enough loyal followers to her counter that she rarely has to toss out any of them, she says.
The uninitiated may at first be put off by the appearance of the dark orbs floating in their beverage. Local personal chef Elizabeth Dickerson declares it a meal in a glass. "It's a great social drink," she says. "The drinks are perfect for our climate -- they are icy cold and portable."
Although pearl tea seems to be slow to catch on in the Valley, it's certainly a darling of the Internet community. Web sites, message boards and e-mail groups are abuzz with the possibilities of pearl tea.
At bubbleteaonline.com, you can vote for your favorite bubble tea place, read dozens of articles about the drink, read about people's tea-drinking experiences and even chat about how to set up a bubble tea franchise in your neighborhood. A New York Times recipe posted on the site gives this simple recipe: Put a half-cup of cooked, chilled, large Chinese tapioca pearls in a large parfait glass. In a cocktail shaker, combine a cup each of crushed ice, strong chilled black tea and milk, and shake vigorously. You might need to add a little honey or sugar. Pour it over the tapioca pearls and serve with extra-large straws.
One friend of mine, who sampled three flavors of Tang's boba drinks, says she'll wait to try it again when they make one out of red wine.
Sharon B. Salomon is a registered dietitian and freelance food writer.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Phoenix dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.