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 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 scenes: 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 pearls are in short supply, thanks to a perfect storm of boba-blocking happenings.
With the world’s economies reopening, more folks are going out for boba. Meanwhile, many ports are still running at partial capacity because of COVID-19, causing backups including 20-some supersized cargo ships anchored off the port of Los Angeles, through which most boba pearls are imported.
Tapioca is a starch made from the root of the cassava plant, domesticated in Brazil and dispersed by the Portuguese to tropical regions of Asia, Africa and elsewhere. It’s beloved wherever it grows, being a heavy producer and malleable in the kitchen. Most Taiwanese boba balls are made with Thai tapioca.
Diehards can still fashion their own boba balls with tapioca flour from the South American motherland. It’s labor-intensive, especially for the novice. But if you’re literally here for the boba, I guess that’s what you have to do.
Even if there weren’t a boba shortage, I would prefer frozen blueberries in my tea. They are my summertime ice cube of choice for many drinks.
I’m lucky to live near a northern Idaho farm that grows monster blueberries, which I buy by the gallon Ziplock. The only work involved is keeping the bags open for a few minutes to let moisture out as they cool, then sealing them shut with as little air inside as possible.
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 a berry bubbly blue boba lemonade.