Flash in the Pan: Blue better boba

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Drinkers of bubble tea are bracing for the worst. Boba balls, the tapioca-based spheres that collect at the bottom of a cup of this wildly popular Taiwanese beverage, are reportedly in short supply.

Bubble tea is a combination of milk and tea, shaken or stirred to create the namesake bubbles. The boba balls hang out at the bottom of the cup, to be sucked up through an extra-wide straw and chewed with the sips of tea.

Boba, as the kids call this wildly popular beverage, has spread throughout East and Southeast Asia and is available wherever such food is sold. Taiwan exports boba balls worldwide, in myriad colors, sometimes even with little juice pockets inside. The diversity of boba tea recipes is like a drinkable distillation of the myriad Asian food scene: Vietnamese coffee boba, Japanese matcha with cheese foam, potted plant boba, black tea and strawberry gummy bear.

The popularity and reach of boba tea has been expanding exponentially, but, as first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and followed up by Business Insider, Smithsonian and others, the dried boba pearls are in short supply, thanks to a perfect storm of boba-blocking happenings.

With world economies reopening, more folks are going out for boba, straining supplies. Meanwhile, many ports are still running at partial capacity because of COVID-19. And ships these days are larger than ever, including 20-some supersized cargo ships anchored offshore from the port of Los Angeles, plus one stuck in the Suez Canal.

Tapioca is a starch made from the root of the cassava plant, which was domesticated in Brazil and dispersed by the Portuguese to the tropical regions of Asia, Africa and elsewhere. It’s beloved wherever it grows for its large harvest of tubers that can be prepared in many different ways.  Most Taiwanese boba balls are made with Thai tapioca.

Boba wholesalers are strapped and retailers are stressed, because without those chewy balls at the bottom, boba buyers are bailing. “Some people will not buy a drink if we’re out of boba,” bubble shop owner Alex Ou told the Chronicle. “They’re literally here for the boba.”

Even if there weren’t a shortage I would prefer frozen blueberries. They are my summertime ice cubes of choice for many drinks. They get the job done cooling the drink and then offer their soggy bodies as a sweet, tart finish. I’m lucky to live near a northern Idaho farm that grows monster blueberries, which I buy by the gallon ziplock. 

In bubble tea, in place of boba balls, blueberries get the job done in a very juicy way, reminiscent of the extra-fancy juice-injected boba balls of Taiwan but even juicer. I use jasmine tea, because its magical flavor pairs perfectly with the blueberries.

To make a very boba-esque blueberry bubble tea, all you need is whipped cream, tea, sugar and frozen berries. Or substitute carbonated water for milk and add lemon, for berry bubbly blue boba lemonade.

Blueberry Boba

The glorious combination of blueberries, cream and jasmine tea makes this something you could imbibe to the bursting point, with no possible regret.

Makes 2 pints

1 cup frozen blueberries

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

3 cups room temperature jasmine tea

1/2 cup cream, whipped

In a bowl, toss the frozen blueberries in the sugar. Add the berries to your pints, followed by the tea, and finally the whipped cream. Shake vigorously, and serve.

Blueberry Bubbly Tea

This is a lighter; fruitier, summery-er and bubbly-er take on bubble tea.

Makes 2 pints

1 lemon, sliced and squeezed with seeds removed

1 cup frozen blueberries

2 tablespoons powdered sugar

2 cups room temperature jasmine tea

2 cups bubbly water

In a bowl, toss the frozen blueberries in the sugar. Add the berries to your pints, followed by the tea, and then the lemon juice and slices. Finally, add the bubbly water. Stir this one, or leave it alone. Definitely don’t shake it.

Flash in the Pan is food writer Ari LeVaux’s weekly recipe column. It runs in about 100 newspapers nationwide, nourishing food sections large and small with complete protein for the belly brain.

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