From Taiwan, with Love
Bubble tea’s roots formed in Taiwan in the 1980s and have grown rapidly across the world ever since, bringing innovations such as shoulder-slung boba cupholders, ever-growing tapioca pearls, and fruit jelly bits along for the ride. The classic sweet drink combines both creaminess and chewiness in a modern, refreshing form. It goes by several different names – boba tea, bubble tea, tapioca tea, and pearl milk tea, to name a few – and no one can quite agree on what the proper mode of reference really is. These names all refer to the varieties of bubble tea that continue springing up, though the most basic model consists of gummy tapioca pearls and milk shaken up with ice and black tea, then served with an oversized straw to accommodate the marble-sized boba clusters.
The boba are made from the extract of a cassava plant via Brazil, which provided Taiwan with the tapioca starch during Japan’s rule of Southeast Asia in the late 19th and early 20th century. Optimal pearl consistency is achieved by striking the delicate balance between softness, bounciness, and chewiness, yet there is no hard-and-fast rule on what boba must be. Some boba are fat and some are small; some are shaped like cartoon characters and some come in pink. The pearls are even moving beyond bubble tea and making their way into skincare regimens, cocktails, sandwiches, pancakes, hot pot soup, crème brûlée, shaved ice, and more. The liquid bases for boba beverages are just as diverse – milk can come in the form of whole or skim or even a nondairy substitute, and sometimes juice bases and tea infusions take the place of the milk product entirely.
Sticky Rice’s Boba History
As of 2017, those in the Knoxville, Tenn., area can enjoy unique variations of bubble tea at Khan Sikarng’s Sticky Rice Café, a family-owned Laotian restaurant that serves traditional Lao foods and other Asian meal varieties, alcohols, and, of course, boba.
The Sikarng family is dedicated to serving unapologetically traditional Lao meals – Khan’s mom cooks the same food she cooked for her children growing up, so there is no Americanization of Laotian foods – but Sticky Rice’s boba drinks go beyond customary milk and tea bases to provide smoothie-based alternatives.
“The difference between making a smoothie versus milk tea is just blending it, making sure the consistency is the same,” says Khan. “And for the milk tea, we have to boil hot water and brew it. It’s just a little bit longer but still really good. We make our teas in the morning so it’s easier to put everything together if they want the tea in a thicker form.”
Along with the beverage base modifications, Sticky Rice also offers a selection of three different types of delicious bubble tea additives: tapioca pearls, popping boba, and fruit jelly.
“We order [popping boba and fruit jelly],” says Khan. “It’s already in containers, so it’s easy. The tapioca is the only thing we actually have to make ourselves, but our [boba] product is really, really, really good. The consistency of it is like if we’d made it ourselves. We have different flavors, but we only open one flavor at a time because we don’t want so many flavors opened up and no one takes it. It’s just so expensive to get [the order] to Knoxville. We have all kinds of popping boba: strawberry, pomegranate, lychee, kiwi. We want to keep everything fresh and nice. I think it’s worth it.”
The bubble tea at Sticky Rice Café was inspired by Khan’s boba experience in Louisiana, where she grew up before moving to Knoxville in 1996.
“There was like no boba [in Knoxville], and no one knew anything about boba,” says Khan. “I know it’s [popular] in California [and] in New York. Growing up in Louisiana, we always had the bubble tea from Frutti Smoothie, and I wanted to have that here incorporated with my restaurant when I opened up. I even talked to the people who owned the bubble tea down in Louisiana, but they only franchise. They won’t let you know what they do unless you franchise from them, so I found a company in California that would distribute to me so I wouldn’t have to order a ton of bubble tea equipment and stuff to get it here.”
Bubble tea’s inclusion on Sticky Rice Café’s menu was made possible by Khan and her family searching, looking, and experiencing it for themselves in Louisiana, and finding a way to bring it back to Tennessee to share the joy of boba with those who hadn’t experienced it before.
“It took us like a year after we opened before we could even get it going because it just took a lot of research and talking to people and a lot of learning,” says Khan. “In Louisiana, you could get it all the time, but I have to order it from California, so it’s a lot more expensive for me to get. Some people don’t like it, but that’s the business – [and] a lot of people enjoy it more than not.”
The Perfect Tapioca Pearl
And what is the secret to crafting the perfect pearl of tapioca? Khan says it’s all about time.
“It takes like an hour. Trust me, when you’re back there and you’re cooking everything to go at order and my mom has four burners going at once and you have to also cook sticky rice, it’s like you constantly have to keep an eye on that tapioca. Because if you don’t, it just goes bad, gets stuck to the pot, clusters up, so you just have to. It’s literally an hour to cook it slowly, stirring it constantly, and then it’s an hour for it to sit…and then you have to wash them with hot water. We make our own sugar water and put the tapioca in there to keep it going. It’s a lot of work, a lot of work, a lot of work. You have to stand there at the stove and stir and stir and stir and stir for an hour, and cover it and let it sit. You can’t put it in sugar water that’s hot; you have to put it in room-temperature sugar water.”
Regulations on Plastic Straws
As a restaurant that serves bubble tea, the growing demand for sustainability in the foodservice industry must be taken into consideration. For Khan, this means addressing the developing ban on plastic straws in the U.S., but for now, this is a development the business hasn’t been affected by.
“If it does [affect us], I won’t mind because I went to a place in Chattanooga that had the paper straws,” says Khan. “I was like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is pretty neat.’ It’s cute, I like it. But when you’re sitting there using the same straw, it kind of withers away. I don’t mind if they come up with bubble tea straws made of paper, but then I also have to change to four different straws. I don’t know if I can recycle that. I don’t know if that makes a difference. Some melt away, and some soften up. But the bubble tea straws, a lot of people won’t reuse it.”
This won’t be the first time Sticky Rice Café has had to deal with an unexpected turn in the bubble tea industry.
“We used to have pink tapioca balls, too,” says Khan. “Everyone loved that, and we were the only ones who had it, and they discontinued it. Now they’re trying to get it back for me because I ordered so much of it. It’s really, really good. Everybody likes it, but we haven’t had it in over a year. It’s a subtly different [flavor], but it’s very pretty, very presentable, easier to cook than the black tapioca balls – same amount of time but doesn’t stick as much. We had some white ones too. They were pretty good, but they aren’t as visible as the black or pink ones. People still come in asking for the pink tapioca ball, and we have to tell them no, so it’s kind of hard.”
The Best Boba Combo
As for deciding on the ideal flavor pairing for the seemingly infinite amount of bubble tea possibilities, it is generally suggested that plain teas are best for fruity flavors, and milk teas go well with neutral flavors such as coconut, caramel, and chocolate.
“If you have coffee, you can’t really do popping boba,” Khan recommends. “It just won’t taste right. We guide customers so they know what tastes good. Lychee will pair well with mango or strawberry or kiwi. But [for] coffee, chai tea, [and] taro, it would be mostly tapioca. The same goes for smoothie-based ones.”
Sticky Rice’s most popular flavors are taro, chai, coconut, lychee, and mango, though taro is the best seller.
“We don’t eat a lot of desserts like cake and ice cream, [so] taro’s like our dessert,” Khan says. “We’re out of taro constantly. I may have to drive to Atlanta to get some soon. They have it, but they don’t have the big amount we order. Everyone that’s had the taro absolutely loved it. I haven’t had anyone who didn’t like it. Pair taro with tapioca balls – it’s the best thing.”
Trying bubble tea for the first time can be intimidating, but Sticky Rice’s welcoming atmosphere and warm service works wonders on eliminating fears of trying new foods. You can learn more about them and their boba options here.