The hospital’s gift shop is the one gift shop I can think of where its contents are meant to be redistributed within the building’s walls. The refrigerator case with zombified Gerber daisies and the rack of overpriced candy I get, but the other shit in there is straight up cray-cray.
Who buys this shit? Emotionally vulnerable and trapped friends/relatives of patients, that’s who.
These music boxes play “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “You Light Up My Life”. There’s a whole carousel of them. I weep for the relationships that are either too repressed to vocalize such thoughts or too literal for nuanced love. (Maybe I just weep because I’m a cold oyster who’ll never know such unironic, grammatically-tolerant love.)
I want to know why the designer thought to pair “The words you are looking for are, ‘Yes Dear’” with a Mediterranean olive and bread spread. What does it mean?? That Italian and Greek spouses are simpering?
Little Aryan angels not your style?
How about this assortment of Neil Gaiman rejects? I especially like the buxom phlebotomist on the far left with blood dripping out of her mouth.
Or you can buy one of your own smiling, brown Native American babies. Not culturally insensitive at all.
Especially compared to these $15 statues in the shape of your favorite hospital characters, including the curvaceous Latina nurse with sassy eyeshadow and Divine eyebrows. (Like those Homies you used to be able to buy from candy machines by the cashiers in grocery stores, only 60x the price!)
Oh, but here’s the one reminder that not everybody’s in the hospital for bad news.
Shortly before my grandfather passed away, my Mae left home to go to school in the city of Kalasin. It would take her half a day to walk from the village to the place where she could ride the bus into town. The jungle she walked through was named after a man who had allegedly been eaten by a tiger, and villagers they passed would warn of fresh tiger tracks. Monkeys cackled overhead, mocking her fear. That’s her in the picture. She was 9.
My grandfather, a school principal, believed in the power of education to raise his children out of the poverty they lived in. He had four sons, five daughters. The rice paddies were the only alternative, a life of backbreaking and painstaking manual labor. They were poorer than I can imagine, but they didn’t know well enough to be unhappy about it. The first words I learned in Pu Thai, my family’s obscure dialect, were, “Kin khao kap paleuh?” — what are you eating rice with? I didn’t know that they ate sticky rice, but not much besides. A fish if they were lucky. A chicken if they had raised one.
And bamboo stew. Swamp green, the color of crocodile skin, thick as muck. The kind you’ll never see on any restaurant menu. My Mae and her siblings would dig the bamboo shoots up along their walk home using trained eyes. They’d add wild mushrooms — the older villagers taught them which mushrooms to gather from the jungle and which to ignore. (My aunt once discovered a motherlode of fungi on her walk to school. Not only did she convince her walking buddy to skip class with her that day, she also got the pal to take her shirt off so they could use it to transport the goods home.) Herbs with funny names — pakee thu, bai ya nang — disintegrate down to their chlorophyll essence. Sweet pumpkin brightens the bubbling ooze like golden half moon islands. With a slow-burn chile heat and salt from pla raa, fermented fish, bamboo stew tastes of Earth — her iron, her magma, her wood, her sulfur.
My Mae makes bamboo stew here in L.A., with some of the ingredients frozen or from cans. When she’s lucky, she can get herbs from a farmers market at a nearby Buddhist temple. The frilly oyster mushrooms come on styrofoam trays sealed in plastic wrap.
As a child, I once told her that her bamboo stew smelled funny. With a severity that made my internal temperature drop five degrees, she said, “Never make fun of other people’s food.”
I didn’t know what it meant to her. I may never really know. Tonight, she said to me, “As a Pu Thai daughter, you must learn to eat bamboo stew.” I wish I could taste the stew she shared with her ravenous brothers and sisters, 9 hands dipping balls of sticky rice into a bowl of the wild country.
For some people, it’s nails on chalkboard. For others, it’s things with holes in them. For me, it’s watching a mango get crushed by terrible de-pitting methods. This page makes me crazy.
I’m writing an article about mangoes right now, and I came across this lovely passage in Jane Grigson’s Fruit Book on the difficulties of prepping a mango, which I know the magazine is not going to want:
Publicity leaflets make it all seem easy. ‘Slice round the middle, or round the edge like an avocado. Twist the two halves in opposite directions, until they come apart, and remove the stone.’
Elated with anticipation, knowing, you make a cut. You give a delicate twist — nothing happens beyond an internal lurch. A stronger twist, a couple of curses, then more strong twists. You are now covered with juice to above the wrist, and the mango looks battered. Salvage what you can with any implement to hand, and turn the pulp — exactly the right word in this instance — into a mango fool or water ice. At least you have the pleasure of licking your hands and arms before washing them clean in plenty of water.
For food writers, Thanksgiving starts as early as summer, when November magazine issues are getting ready to go to press, and generally go through all the way to the end of November for web. I’ve been thinking about mashed potatoes a lot for work lately, and I remembered a particular lesson I learned when I was teaching myself to cook western food.
Early in my New York life, I used to dogsit a little blond dachshund mix named Luna. She had pee pads for days she couldn’t wait for her dogsitter to come home. Sometimes, I’d come back to the apartment after work and find little skid marks on the pee pad, but no poop. I never had dogs growing up. I’d think, she didn’t eat her poop, did she???
One time, there was a downpour and I tried to take her out for a walk, not wanting to shirk one of my few duties as caretaker. I fastened a little raincoat around her narrow shoulders and we took the elevator down. When we got to the lobby, she dug her heels in and refused to cross the threshold onto Bleecker St. I pulled on her leash. She growled. Petulant and indignant, she popped a squat and peed right there in the doorway. I don’t remember if the doorman offered the clean it up or if I went back to the apartment to get paper towels. I just remember thinking, well, even posh blond dogs in the west village are still just dogs.
Luna belonged to a very fancy couple who lived at Bank St. and Bleecker St. They had purchased two apartments on the ground floor and knocked the wall down to combine them. Even then, 15 years ago, I guessed I’d never have a life like that.
They had a pretty kitchen, gorgeous Le Creuset pots, and terrible Ginsu-style serrated knives. There were shelves of cookbooks for perusing. As a thank you for taking care of Luna, the lady of the house cooked me dinner once — a gigantic, curling fillet of monkfish over wet, tomatoey couscous. I had never had monkfish. “It’s supposed to taste kind of like lobster,” she said. I had never had lobster.
They encouraged me to cook while they were away, to take advantage of all of their amenities. Rooting around in their cabinets, I found a food processor, the first I’d ever touched. Here was my chance to take this technology for a spin. I decided to make mashed potatoes.
I boiled the potatoes, stuck them into the processor and poured hot milk and butter down the chute. Whizz whizz whizz! I removed the cover and stuck a spoon in.
Disgusting! The potatoes had become glue. There’s no other way to describe it — they were gloppy and elastic in a way I never knew potatoes could be. How could such a benign substance betray like that?
The food processor lost my trust that night, and, frankly, it hasn’t done much to earn it back in the years since.
If I had to draw a lesson from this persistent memory, it would be this: I’ve been in L.A. for five months now, and I’m frustrated with how little progress I’ve made getting to know the city. I still don’t even know my way around my local grocery store. This transition feels a little like those early years in New York did, when my days were full of questions and frustration and experiments gone awry. These feelings were fine when I was in my 20s, but they’re discomfiting now. I guess it’s good to remember what it was like to be green, and to know that it passes. And to know that, like Luna, I’ll always be who I am wherever I am.
I’ve been struggling with how to explain Einstein on the Beach to people, and what an impactful, unexpectedly moving piece of art it was. And I could tell you what it meant to me, but it would have nothing to do with what it might mean to you. I’ve never seen anything like it and I’m sure I never will again.
I really, really didn’t expect to love it as much as I did. I had never understood Philip Glass’s music before. Full disclosure: I went to see Satyagraha at the Met from our usual nosebleed balcony box seats and slept through half of it. But a friend gave me tickets to opening night for Einstein on the Beach at the LA Opera and I jumped at the chance to check it out*.
It runs 4 hours without intermission, with music that constantly repeats itself (and mostly stays in the high end range, puffing the sinuses). Maybe that doesn’t sound like your cup of tea. Whose cup of tea could it possibly be? But stay with me.
I had the privilege of sitting in the third row orchestra, dead center, and looking into the pit to watch the orchestra, ensemble, and chorus. The first two scenes are difficult and feel interminable; the organ cycles are relentless bordering on sadistic; the repetitive scenes made me squirm with discomfort. I watched several people plug their ears, then file out of their primo seats, never to return.
But then I found a fissure in what Robert Wilson calls a “knee play”, an interstitial scene performed from the pit. I watched the chorus and the astonishing Lisa Bielawa sing the numbers “1, 2, 3, 4…” over and over again. What I love about opera in general has nothing to do with any lofty intellectual appreciation. I love opera the way other people love the Olympics — it’s a chance for me to watch people contort their bodies through sheer will and do what few others in the world can do. In this knee play, I found that mind-boggling virtuosity, not in showy high Cs but in an ensemble keeping track of time and space in a superhuman way. That fissure became a crack that poured light over the whole experience. My body and mind made the transition from linear expectation into a kind of trance.
From there, it became a meditation in kairos time. I was glued to my seat, and my nerves were firing. I got lost in the imagery on stage, the choreography, the unbelievably difficult music. Scenes would typically cycle through a sequence and repeat again and again, adding a layer here, a note there, a new character or a new movement. A woman with anime eyes and Minnie Mouse hair puts her ear to a conch shell and bathes in its sound. A chorus, as a jury, simultaneously and gingerly places their paper lunch bags next to their feet. A white bar of light oppresses, blinding you, but you miss it when it rises up and leaves. Dancers in white and beige uniforms pirouette and jeté across the stage in a sequence that is light and energetic at first until its length feels cruel.
It rings in my ears. This week, I found myself thinking about the repetitive motions of modern life. Wake up, work, go to sleep. Stoplight red, green light go. 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, 9-5, weekend. It is the moments that break those cycles that can crank up the tension but also offer relief from monotony. My life was propelling forward in daily cycles at an unnoticeably rapid clip until my father had a heart attack and I moved back to L.A. This year is one of those extraordinary moments for me — a dilation of time and space, a paradigm shift, an atomic bomb.
Maybe you don’t buy it. I don’t blame you; my articulation has limitations. But if you have a chance to see it, you really should.
* With deepest gratitude to the friend who gave me the tickets. Holy shit, I owe you.
When you are new to an area, there are costs accrued in learning to get around. Sometimes you pay in transportation fares or gas, sometimes you pay in time; often, it’s both.
When I first moved to New York, I’d often get on the D train at Broadway/Lafayette and wind up in Brooklyn instead of midtown. Seems so elementary now, recognizing the difference between the downtown trains and the uptown trains, but it took me a while to figure it out. When I got lost, I’d just exit the train and cross over to the opposite platform. I mostly paid in lost time, which I had plenty of back then.
I’m back to being a n00b here in L.A., and it sucks. On the way to the Central Library today, I paid $17 for a round trip Metrolink ticket + $1.50 for Metro Red subway. But when I got there, the homeless folks and I clustered around the entrance only to find it closed for Columbus Day. (I have never had a job that gave me the day off on Columbus Day. It is not a real holiday!) So I stepped on the wrong bus and paid $1.50 (fuck) before I took the Metro Silver bus back ($2.45), thus learning that it is a much cheaper and more efficient way to move between my hood and downtown.
Well, that’s what I thought while I was on the bus. Then I realized that it takes about 25 minutes to drive to the El Monte bus station, which is about how long it takes to drive to the library. The only thing I avoid by taking the bus is having to navigate the confusing, swirly one-way streets of downtown L.A. Oh, and I also don’t have to deal with the confounding business of parking validation. (I once parked in the wrong lot and had to pay $15 for parking. $15! On a Saturday! That is outrageous.)
So the morning was a complete bust and I generously donated $23 to the Metro. I’m not even going to calculate the cost of gas used on roundtrips to pick me up from the stations.
All of which is to say that I miss the simplicity and reach of my unlimited NYC Metrocard. Do you know how much freedom you have, my New York friends, and how cheap it comes? I don’t know that I did.
Like many, I’m really enjoying the tenure of Pope Francis so far. I’m charmed! The guy chose the name of a saint whose statue always has little creatures perched around him. I’m in no danger of being converted, but I like the mystic, generous form of the religion the Pope is presenting — one that is virtually unrecognizable to me as an outsider.
One part of his recent interview in La Repubblica hit home for me:
The most serious of the evils that afflict the world these days are youth unemployment and the loneliness of the old. The old need care and companionship; the young need work and hope but have neither one nor the other, and the problem is they don’t even look for them any more.
Was like a little pearl of affirmation for me. Not that my parents are so old yet, but they will be.
A nice thing about seeing my father every day is that we can now joke about shit that used to be too serious to laugh about. Like after my dad’s been at the 99-cent store down the street for hours:
ME: I thought maybe you got forgot your way and I’d have to drive out to find you.
or after I complain about my dad’s affinity for junk:
PAU: The house is yours, but the stuff is mine. When I die, you can just put all my stuff in my coffin so they can cremate it with me.
In April, my mother tapped that blunt message out to me from her ancient cell phone at 2:30am her time. Back when I lived in Brooklyn, whenever I got texts in the middle of the night, I’d always be up like a shot. This was the scary message I had expected for many years, not the good night texts or “emergency” website outage texts I got from work. I came to fear this message after my father had a quadruple bypass while I was doing a junior year abroad in London. I worried when I saw him pull the car over to take a nitroglycerin pill for his not-infrequent chest pains. I fretted at the thought of my Pau overexerting his body while threading the mouth of a 5-gallon Sparkletts bottle into the water cooler.
Despite my mom’s protestations that I wait a few hours and see how my dad felt, I purchased the next available ticket to LAX, put my laptop and two outfits in my backpack (oops — minus socks), and called a cab to get to New York’s LaGuardia airport.
In the cardiac ICU, my dad’s jolly Buddha proportions were flattened out and woven with tubes. He looked like a frog on its back, white belly round and vulnerable. I felt so acutely the utter uselessness of my chosen profession while watching the evening nurse administer morphine and oxygen to my panicking, out-of-breath father. The ominous machines around him blinked, beeped, and hissed, communicating his status in codes I was powerless to understand. My mom asked me to take a damp cloth to clean his hair and head. I realized as I wiped his forehead down gently that I had never put my hands that close to his face, as Thai culture forbids the younger from touching the heads of elders.
The hospital dinner came, a sweaty tray served with small packets of acrid, dessicated “salt-free seasoning”, which failed to make the drab, but heart-healthy, entree any more appealing. I used the plastic knife to dice a pale, thin chicken breast swathed in dull, beige gravy, and flexed the bendy straw into a small plastic tumbler of water for my dad to drink from. We laid another washcloth down to use as a bib and he scooped up the chunks of meat with a bit of dry brown rice pilaf and spongy frozen string beans. He ate, and he groused about the nurses stealing his Jello cup.
Eating and complaining — this is life.
I’ve told this story before, but I’ll tell it again: I last attempted to hug my father about twelve years ago. I had just flown in from Brooklyn to L.A., and my parents had both come to pick me up. Seeing them smaller and older, I felt daughterly guilt and altitude sentimentalism burst from my heart like goop from a pimple. I wrapped my arms around my Pau. His whole body kind of clenched, and when I released him from my grip, he gruffly said, “Chinese people don’t hug.”
He may not have been speaking for the whole diaspora, but it’s certainly true in our Thai-Chinese family; we’re not touchy-feely. But my Pau showed his love in the kitchen. My whole life, he’d go to great lengths to prepare the foods my brother and I loved. Dinner always included at least two dishes with rice, which he’d have prepared while cooking until midnight the night before. Sundays were reserved for congee with a phone book-thick, speckled frittata; or Thai rice soup made with firm, sweet fish or long-simmered pork ribs, fragrant with julienned ginger and a shower of cilantro. When my brother and I clamored for the lasagnes we saw on TV shows, my Pau used his imagination and approximated the dish using pasta layered with cottage cheese, pepperoni, and little cocktail weenies. When we begged for McDonald’s Egg McMuffins, my Pau fashioned a ring mold from a folded piece of tin foil and fried eggs into the perfect circles his facsimile demanded. His culture — our culture — had never given my Pau the vocabulary for expressing affection, but I had always recognized these thrice daily culinary rituals as gestures of love, as demonstrative and clear as American TV families’ mawkish embraces.
Now, food has become the enemy in our midst.
The household is on a diabetes-friendly, low-salt, low-cholesterol diet now. All for one and one for all! If he can’t have white rice with every meal, neither will I! I worship the nurses and doctors who literally saved my father’s life, but I don’t want to have to see those people again. Once my dad was discharged, I came home and purged their kitchen of bouillon cubes, breads, croutons, and other high sodium culprits.
But I paused in front of my dad’s stoveside army of Asian condiment bottles. The once familiar, brown friends, flavors that nourished me and stoked my appetite, had become infiltrated perpetrators overnight. What used to be benign fish sauce, thick black soy sauce, coffee, palm sugar, and Splenda had become harbingers of high blood pressure, lung fluid retention, heart palpitations, diabetes, and cancer.
This is a problem, me being a food writer and all. I haven’t figured out how to reconcile it, yet.
At first, my mom and I shared cooking duties, making invisibly seasoned vegetable stir-fries and kaeng jud, bland, clear broths with mild blocks and blobs like translucent winter melon, tofu, and a tiny bit of ground meat.
On the second night he was home, I made a fish soup meant to be ladled over rice. Even after boiling the bones for some time with aromatic Chinese celery, slices of ginger, and crushed cloves of garlic, the soup was wan, and not up to par, I knew.
Later that night, I saw my dad enjoying his dinner with a suspicious amount of gusto, so I went to the pot and stuck a spoon in. He had clearly added thang-chai, mouth-puckeringly high-sodium preserved vegetables. Look, I knew it needed the thang-chai‘s unique musty tang and salinity; I also knew he didn’t need it. I surreptitiously added more water to the pot to dilute it down.
This would be our game now, I could see.
My cousins sometimes hint that I ought not to police my dad’s diet so much. That’s what he enjoys in life, they say; Can’t you let him have what he likes? NO. I want him to live, and I’m going to be selfish about it.
Months have passed since my move back here, my grand gesture. My dad’s back to doing most of the cooking, though he’s recalibrated his seasoning hand to accommodate the doctor’s orders. Though we still don’t hug, this latest brush with death seems to have made him a little more ABC Afterschool Special.
As he watches me eat, he says, “You know, my Mae used to cook for me, too. Even when I visited her in Thailand before she died, she tried to get up and cook for me. Can you believe that? At 80 years old.” He shakes his head. “Nothing tastes like home, right? That’s why I cook for you. Makes me happy to see you happy,” he says with a smile.
Sometimes, my social network feeds are dangerous to peruse. I see what my friends are eating (particularly my friends in New York), and I am seized with cravings that make me want to chew my tongue off. I try to scroll quickly past descriptions of chewy soppressata pizza hit with hot honey or milky pork tonkotsu ramen. For now, I’m eating in solidarity with my parents; after all, it was never the food that mattered. We are eating together, and that’s enough for me.
(My dad asked me what I was doing. I said I wanted to take a picture of him wearing this insane highlighter yellow, probably irregular, XXL t-shirt, surely purchased at the 99 cent store. He laughed. I took the picture.)
And so the natural pecking order has been re-established in our kitchen. The other day, I spy my Mae at the sink with the biggest kabocha pumpkin I’ve ever seen. She’s balancing the monster on one curved side and is trying to hack into it with a thin, long carving knife. I feel pretty confident that she’s going to take off several of her delicate digits with it.
“Mae, don’t do that.” I come over and choose a large, heavy, 10” chef’s knife from the block. After setting the pumpkin on its ample bottom, I dig the heel of the blade into the pumpkin near its stem. Just as I’m about to give the knife another whack with the flat of my palm, I see my Pau hovering next to me, shaking his head with disdain.
“Lheek,” my dad says in Thai. Get out of the way. He pulls a giant cleaver out of the knife block. Using a wooden pestle as a mallet, he taps the cleaver blade and chisels the tough gourd into chunks. Tap-tap-thwack. Tap-tap-tap-thunk. I smile at his ingenuity, and I hear his message, loud and clear.
I have been on a quest for the perfect boba recipe for years. YEARS. And I have finally found it. After hours of research and six packages of tapioca pearls, I can tell you the secret:
It’s less about how you cook and more about what kind of boba you’re buying.
I’m writing this post as a PSA for all likeminded non-Chinese-reading or -speaking bobaheads who have found the search for the perfect recipe as frustrating and inconclusive as I have. Little Bean in Rowland Heights makes my ideal bubbles — they’re soft but chewy, and springy between the teeth, so the first bite never tears all the way through.
(My friends Sarah and Claire remind me that “boba” is slang for big breasts in Taiwan. Draw whatever conclusions you want to about how that translates in terms of texture. According to the participants on Urban Dictionary, tapioca is referred to as “zen zu,” or pearls, in Taiwan.)
As much as I tried, I was never able to recreate it at home, and I was too sheepish to ask the lady at Little Bean how they made theirs. Some recipes call for soaking the beads. Some call for a long cook followed by a shorter steep. Some call for a rolling boil, while some call for a simmer. Some call for a 12-minute boil, others call for a whopping 35 minutes. Some insist that the rice cooker or slow cooker makes the difference.
I saved every recipe I could find. It’s amazing how many variations exist, and how incomplete they tend to be. Should I use lots of water, like pasta, or just enough water to soak up, like risotto? Should I add sugar during the cooking process or soak after? Should I rinse the beads or not?
I tried everything, but none of the methods were able to yield the texture that makes me crave boba. Sometimes the pellets would fall apart, leaving me with a beige sludge at the bottom of the bowl. Sometimes half the beads would cook through while the other half remained opaque and uncooked in the center.
It took some time before I realized that I was just buying the wrong brand. The problem was that I didn’t know what to look for.
What not to buy
The quality of product, and the properties for cooking, are wildly inconsistent with boba, more so than any other ingredient I can think of. For this most recent round of testing, I purchased boba from my local 99 Ranch, which you’d think would have the best possible selection of raw ingredients. Their dried foods aisle offered four options, of which I tried three:
WuFuYuan 5-minute tapioca pearls come in a 250g package for about $2.60 each. They’re nubbly and dark and look a little bit like The Thing (or, more specifically, Tobias Fünke’s Thing costume). They’re very light; if you drop one on the table, it bounces. They’re pretty good in a pinch, as they take about 12 minutes (to cook to my taste – 7 minutes rolling boil, 5 minute steep) instead of 60. But they have a tendency to get a little too chewy and dense once they hit cold liquid or ice. These are made in China.
The Kimbo brand “Starch balls” are about $1.30 for 200g. They’re made in Taiwan. After a long boil, half of the balls were raw and starchy in the center while the other half were slimy.
But I found that the worst were the Chang Chi tapioca balls, which are about $1.60 for 300g. These are made in Taiwan. I made the mistake of trying to soak 100g of these in a bowl of cold water. It took about 10 seconds for them to just burst open and disintegrate. It was like dropping a saltine into a bowl of chicken soup. For the second attempt, I got the water to a rolling boil before dropping the tapioca in. Many of the beads still fell apart and became mush with a soaked, spongy texture like tres leches cake. It was gross.
(The fourth brand looks pretty much like the Chang Chi and Kimbo, and was the cheapest, so I never tried it.)
One odd health note I learned about in the window of a nearby Taiwanese restaurant — on June 6, 2013, certain boba brands from Taiwan were recalled for having maleic acid in them, an additive that is not approved for food and could harm the kidneys. Here’s the FDA advisory.
The Aha! moment
Three packages later, I was back to square one. Then, after watching this YouTube video and following the link to Boba Store, I had a revelation — why didn’t my raw tapioca pearls look like those raw tapioca pearls?
The two brands of slow cook boba pearls I bought look like toasted fregola. They are dense and powdery spheres, often with one suntanned side and one light side (pictured left in the photo above). The ones in that video and site, as well as Nuts.com’s site, are sold in vacuum-packed packages. The big beads are evenly mocha brown throughout, with more dents and dimples in the shape, indicating a different texture and density (pictured right in the photo above). Why didn’t 99 Ranch have those for sale? Were they only available wholesale or could I find a package at a different Asian market in the area?
I went hunting, and at T S Emporium in Rowland Heights, I found what I needed.
This 1kg package of Bolle tapioca pearls was only $2.60. They had that even brown color I was looking for. And here’s the thing — the only starch listed in the ingredients is tapioca starch.
Compare that to the Chang Chi, which lists tapioca and sweet potato starch:
The Kimbo lists only potato starch:
That fourth, untested brand I saw at 99 Ranch mysteriously listed only “starch” as the ingredient.
Meanwhile, the WuFuYuan quick-cook tapioca is full of chemfood ingredients like methylcellulose, guar gum, sodium hydrogen diacetate, and agar powder. (Maybe that’s why they are so weirdly bouncy.) The 5-minute boba became a lot less appealing once I learned that they’re a chemistry concoction and not just parboiled, as I had assumed at first.
I knew I was on the right track with the product. Now I had to figure out the right cooking method.
Why you shouldn’t presoak
Here’s what happens when you presoak. The three fragments on the right are a single Chang Chi pearl that exploded upon contact with the water. The pearl on the left is a Bolle tapioca pearl which isn’t breaking up, but it is dissolving in the water. I poked it with my finger and it just kind of melted on contact. These tapioca pearls are not like the kind you buy for pudding. They’re very soluble, and if you touch them when wet, they have a tendency to just disintegrate.
Why I don’t rinse after cooking
I don’t see the point in the after-cooking rinse. It gets the pearls cool, and that’s not what I want. One of the things I’ve learned from years of patronizing Little Bean is that the tapioca pearls lose their magical chewy tenderness when they get cold. However, bubble tea is always served cold (at least on the west coast). It’s a conundrum! Perfection can only be achieved when the warm pearls stay on the bottom of the cup, the cold liquid only joining the tapioca en route to your mouth in the fat straw highway. Keeping them segregated as much as you can preserves the texture for longer. I think that’s why you see so many boba tea joints serving their boba in rice cookers on keep warm or crockpots.
Anyhow, no rinse.
Why I don’t keep the pearls in their cooking liquid
I thought this was a good idea at first, but, like pasta water, the cooking liquid gets quite murky and unappealing. Better to drain that stuff off and store them in the syrup (which adds flavor, anyway).
Why the long cook
The Kitchn recipe recommended 12-15 minute boil + 12-15 minute steep. This is not enough for me — the results are far too chewy, especially after a few hours. I tried the 20 minute boil + 25 minute steep as written on the package and these were still too chewy in the middle.
But I came back to the Boba Guys recipe, which finally worked as it should work once I had the right product. I made some adjustments to suit my taste, so I’m writing them up below. I’m very, very, very satisfied with the results. I get the chew I want without sacrificing the silky springiness, and the pearls don’t seize up once they’re in an iced drink.
Storing your dry boba
I’m also finding that, once opened, the previously vacuum-packed pearls tend to evaporate moisture which condenses inside the bag and looks like it might court spoilage. You’re probably better off cooking and serving a big batch rather than trying to make a single package last all year. (I’ve read that you can freeze them, but I haven’t tried that yet.) (UPDATE: Yes! Once you’ve opened the package, freeze them. They cook up perfectly after being frozen, exact same method applies.)
So remember — look for pearls that use all tapioca starch, no substitutes. That’s it! They won’t necessarily be the most expensive brand; you have to read the ingredients list. I wasn’t able to find a supplier on Amazon that looked trustworthy. These pearls from Nuts.com get good reviews and look right, but the shipping will kill you. If you’ve got an Asian market in town, check there first.
The Perfect Boba Recipe
This recipe is adaptable for whatever amount you want to make, whether it’s just a few servings or enough to feed a crowd. It’s about 25 grams* of dry pearls per small serving (think small cup of boba tea).
Make a simple syrup by heating 1 part brown sugar, 1 part white sugar, and 2 parts water until dissolved. Set aside. Leftovers can be refrigerated.
Boil water like you would for pasta — lots of it (at least 10x the amount of water, so if you’re doing 100g, do 1000mL water). Once you’re at a rolling boil, weigh out your tapioca pearls (I cook in increments of 100g) and add the tapioca pearls to the water all at once. Stir. Let the water come up to a boil again; the pearls will float to the top. Once the water is boiling again, lower the heat to medium. Set a lid slightly ajar on top and cook for 35 minutes. Stir every five minutes. Turn the heat off. Cover completely and let the pearls steep for 25 minutes.
Drain the pearls. Do not rinse. For every 100 grams of dry pearls, add 50mL of the simple syrup. Let steep for at least 15 minutes. Serve right away or within a few hours. If you have leftovers, you can refrigerate them for a day, but you must microwave them for about 30 seconds before serving. (Alternatively, keep them warm in a rice cooker on the “Keep Warm” setting or a crockpot on the lowest setting, but don’t let them overcook. I haven’t tried rewarming on the stovetop, not sure if this would work.)
To serve: Place a few heaping tablespoons of warm tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup. Add your beverage. Add your ice last. DO NOT SHAKE AROUND — boba texture suffers in the cold. Serve with a fat straw. Preen triumphantly.
Note: these are very, very soft when hot and fresh; they firm up after soaking in the syrup and once your cold drink has been added. If you want to serve these with a hot drink, I’d probably cut the cooking time back down to 25 minutes.
*Yeah, that’s right, I said grams. Use your scale. I am all about g and mL now. Here’s why.