It’s early summer, and I’m meeting a friend for lunch at her newest favorite cafe. I’m running late — if the crammed parking lot outside is any indication, this café is also everyone else’s favorite new place, as well, and I’ve had to stash my car blocks away — so I arrive at our table just in time to hear her order a boba tea. “One for me, too,” I announce, thinking I’ve just asked for that ubiquitous summer drink: an iced tea.
I have not. My first quick suck on the giant plastic drinking straw has filled my mouth with a pile of what feels like gluey smelt eggs.
Oh, this stuff, I think, trying to unstick sugar pearls from an old crown at the back of my jaw. I’ve heard about boba, popular in other cities for some time and now — and as happens in Phoenix, finally — lately a big deal here.
“Mmmm,” my friend enthuses, through a mouth full of chewy little marbles. “So good!”
Maybe. I’m not so sure. I keep drinking, in part because I’d forgotten that boba means sharing my drink with little round pebbles of goo, as if my iced tea were a repository for the heads of several dozen decapitated gummy bears. This is what you deserve for ordering hastily, I think, as I chew my tea. Keep going. Maybe you’ll learn to like it.
I do not. But because I like tapioca and don’t mind a challenge, I decide to keep drinking boba tea. I want a handle on the joy so many of my friends seem to get from cold drinks filled with flavorless jelly balls. I’ve since tried Nutella milk tea at Milk Run; a honey-infused Earl Grey at Tea Swirl; and a sticky-sweet prickly pear boba tea at Ruze Cake House. I finished none of them. I’m a boba failure. The stuff is just gross.
But not to the bazillion people who are keeping this super-sweet trend going. Boba tea — also known as bubble tea or pearl milk tea — went mainstream in the ’90s, though Taiwan (where boba originated) had the jump on us by about a decade. Sometimes fruit-flavored, boba milk teas both green and black are the drink’s starting point, although smoothies and coffee drinks are also on boba’s chewy little pearls menu.
Those pearls are made from cassava root, a type of starch, and are usually mixed with brown sugar. Because they absorb whatever they’re resting in, these tapioca balls tend to taste like nothing — or, more actually, like what you’re drinking.
Determined to learn to like boba, I call my friend Susan Newell, a boba fanatic. I figure, I’ve known Susie for nearly a half century; she’ll be able to tell me what people see in this weird little drink.
Susie confesses that she got into boba because she’s a colossal Star Wars fan. “There’s a Star Wars character named Boba Fett,” she tells me, “and the first time I saw boba on a menu I thought, ‘I have to check that out.’”
Susie, whose favorite boba place is Milk Tea 101 in Tempe, admits she hasn’t been drinking much boba lately. “It’s high in sugar and the pearls are very high in carbohydrates,” she says. “And there’s no nutritional value. I’m a diabetic, so I have to keep an eye on what I eat and drink. But I miss boba. In spite of my better judgment, I love it.”
I ask Susie what the point of boba is.
“Maybe you’re over-thinking it,” she suggests. “I just love the taste. You could try focusing on that.”
Determined to crack the boba nut, I’ve continued ordering it. I even tried a jackfruit and lychee boba thing at Bambu Desserts & Drinks, thinking that piling my boba up with fruit would make the difference. I was mistaken.
Jonathan McNamara, a former colleague of mine who’s been drinking bubble tea since college, thinks maybe I should give up. “Just like anything else, boba isn’t for everyone,” he tells me. Jonathan likes having something to chew on while he’s having a refreshing drink, and he’s had boba in everything from fruit smoothies to Thai tea. As he’s gotten older, he favors boba in plain jasmine or honey green tea.
“I like boba for the same reason I like candy,” he tells me. “It’s not necessary or essential to the drink, but it adds something to my day. I like the range of flavors you can get from different ingredients. Like, to me, the taro root bobas taste just like cookies and cream ice cream.”
Instead of asking why he doesn’t just eat a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream, I head to the internet to chat with my friend Mike Ford. “Boba is gross, right?” I type.
“It is,” he agrees. “It’s like someone dumped a bucket of sugar into a bucket of fish bait.”
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Later that day I drive to My Tea over on Central Avenue. “Hey, listen,” I say to the nice young woman at the counter after ordering a hemp milk and watermelon boba. “What do the tapioca balls do?”
She shrugs. “Nothing. They’re just fun to have in your mouth. They’re like a little extra.”
I give up. Unless it’s a water chaser and my beverage has been aged in wood for a dozen years, I don’t want a little extra. I do not wish to chew my drink. I want libations to quench my thirst, or give me a buzz, or at very least taste good. Why can’t iced tea just be sort of wet and pleasant?
After a few sips, I leave my My Tea boba in the trash barrel outside. It’s time to face the sticky, sweet truth: I live in a world full of people who prize a jelly roll at the bottom of their iced tea, and among them I am a lost cause.