I think it's safe to say that cold tea has finally come into its own. While those of us in the southern United States have known forever that nothing beats the heat quite like iced tea with lemon, mint, and sugar, the concept is relatively new to the rest of the world. Just a few years ago, club denizens on the Spanish beach playgrounds of the Costa del Sol were smugly toasting themselves with an exotic new libation: iced tea. This very July, The New York Times reported on a cutting-edge craze in Paris -- glacé parfumé -- iced tea flavored with fruit or flower syrups.
The most interesting variation of iced tea around, however, must be Asian bubble tea, aka black pearl tea, boba, milk tea, zhen zhu nai cha, pearl shake, jelly tea, and QQ (Chinese slang for chewy).
With folk roots in Taiwan, bubble tea drinks spread to Hong Kong a couple of decades ago, and from there to Japan, the Philippines, and the Asian communities on the west coast of the United States and Canada. These days, you can find bubble tea houses in any large U.S. city with Asian populations, and around college campuses across the country. Austin, always dancing on the bleeding edge of trendiness, is no exception.
The variations of bubble tea combinations are vast -- they can be composed of black or green teas, crushed ice, and fruit, flower, or vegetable infusions, such as strawberry, pineapple, black cherry, ginger, lavender, rose, hibiscus, or green bean. The richer, usually sweeter, dessert-like "milk" teas incorporate coconut, peanut, or almond milk, or even ice cream.
"Bubble" refers to the foam created by shaking freshly brewed tea with ice. (Like a classic martini, quality bubble tea must be shaken, not stirred.) "Pearl" refers to the dark, marble-sized tapioca (sago) balls found in the bottom of the glass, meant to be sucked up through an oversized straw. Words cannot describe that first sensation of those viscous pearls coolly slipping into your mouth along with the flavors of tea and fruit. A variation is "jelly," which refers to translucent, chewy, usually fruit-flavored gelatin cubes used instead of pearls in teas. (Don't think Gummi bears; jelly is much softer and more subtle than that.) The art of bubble tea lies in designing the flavor combinations and, believe me, you can have it your way.
So, the next time you feel in need of refreshment on a sizzling Austin summer day, consider bubble tea at one of the following locations. Subtly complex flavors, beautiful colors, interesting variations in texture and mouth feel -- iced tea never had so much fun.
The grande dame of local bubble tea rooms, Momoko opened a number of years ago, along with a gift shop specializing in Sanrio products and other ultra-hip Japanese accoutrements. Recently, a small Japanese restaurant has been added to the complex. The teas here are light, fresh, and lovingly crafted, with some unusual herbal varieties available. My own favorite concoction is the lovely apricot tea with peach jelly.
8557 Research Blvd, #118, 833-6588
In each location (one on the Drag and one in a pan-Asian shopping center), CoCo's serves up quick Taiwanese-style rice and noodle dishes, as well as an interesting variety of bubble teas, including yummy papaya cream with pearls, watermelon cream, green mango, lychee juice with lychee jelly, and red beans with rice balls. Both spots are loud and busy, functioning as a New Age variation of the old malt-shop hangout.
Tue-Sat, 10am-8pm; Sun, 12pm-6pm; Mon, closed
Located in South Austin (next to Java Noodle House), Gigi Hobson's Jegimajo! is a friendly and intimate family-run establishment that creates killer bubble teas (their icy, pale lavender taro milk tea left me weak in the knees). Along with tea drinks, they offer other refreshing beverage/desserts such as halo-halo ("mix-mix," a traditional treat of shaved ice, tropical fruits, jellies, and exotic ice cream), and gulaman (grass jelly, coconut milk, and toasted rice flakes). They also serve Filipino hot food, and stock a wide variety of snacks, grocery items, magazines, movies, and gifts from the Philippines and Japan. Don't miss the intriguing imported ice creams, whose flavors include corn and cheese, purple yam, jackfruit, and avocado.
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