Ode to bubble tea (or why I bought a 3kg bag of tapioca pearls)

Ode to bubble tea (or why I bought a 3kg bag of tapioca pearls)

CNA Lifestyle’s Circuit Breaker Diaries series features musings on Singapore life in the time of coronavirus. Here’s something to chew on: An unusual obsession with these orbs of goodness during Hari Raya.

Woman inside a cup of bubble tea drink
(Art: Jasper Loh)

You apparently learn a lot about yourself when you’re forced to stay home. Some people have learned they’re not as introverted as they think. Some have discovered their talent for baking banana bread.

Me? I’ve learned I have a somewhat strange coping mechanism: Chewing tapioca pearls. 

When Singapore announced its strictest round of “circuit breaker” measures, effectively kicking bubble tea shops to the curb, I feltnothing.

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Bubble tea wasn’t my favourite thing on the menu. My colleagues know this well. When they order bubble tea – and they did that at least thrice a week back in the pre-COVID-19 days – I’m not the first person they ask.

When I do order, it’s a green apple ice-blended with pearls – every time. That’s right, my favourite bubble tea order is a cup of green artificial flavouring, ice and tapioca pearls. It’s so basic that Each-A-Cup only makes it if you make a special order in-store. 

But amid the circuit breaker, Ramadan began.

Maybe it’s the sugar. Maybe it’s the satisfaction from being able to earnestly chew something that’s not my bottom lip.

In previous Ramadans, I would dream of water during the day. A tall glass of precious ice-cold liquid, perspiring in the tropical heat, with no ice cubes – because they always got in the way of the actual drinking. I swear, every time someone poured some water, I would hear it no matter how far away I was standing. Fasting gives one super-hearing powers.

But this year, I found myself thinking about bubble tea.

Maybe it’s the sugar. Maybe I was missing the Geylang Ramadan bazaar. Maybe it’s the satisfaction from being able to earnestly chew something that’s not my bottom lip.

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But what I wanted more than anything was to break my fast with something that specifically had tapioca pearls in it. 

There are many toppings available for bubble tea these days. There are the golden pearls, which I think are tapioca pearls mixed with brown sugar. 

Nothing has bite quite like the tapioca pearl. Nothing as glossy-smooth, silky-black and slippery like frogspawn.

There’s the classic – or as my colleague describes it – “under-rated” Nata de Coco. There’s pudding, grass jelly, fruit jelly and yoghurt bombs, which are my second choice just for the surprise factor.

Tapioca pearls cooked
Do these cooked tapioca pearls look like frogspawn to you? (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

But nothing has bite quite like the tapioca pearl. Nothing as glossy-smooth, silky-black and slippery like, pardon the image, frogspawn.

You could roll one round with your tongue or you could gargle a mouthful like they’re marbles. When I’m daydreaming, I also imagine plunging my hand into a giant bowl of tapioca pearls, squishing them lightly with my fingers but not bursting them – never bursting them. 

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When restaurants started pairing up with bubble tea businesses during the circuit breaker, I thought, ‘Okay, it’s not so bad if I can have it sometimes’.

So one night, I ordered a nasi ambeng set that came with bubble tea. Except that when it arrived at 7pm, the bubble tea came without bubbles.

“We’re all out of tapioca pearls,” the restaurant said, when they called an hour earlier. What? What? I must’ve said it out loud because then they said: “We’re so sorry, but it’s been really popular. We’re sending you a free lychee tea to make up for it.”

I ordered a 3kg vacuum-sealed bag of ready-to-cook tapioca pearls from a place called Boba Planet. 

I knew then what I had to do. I ordered tapioca pearls the next day.

Yes, someone who was too lazy and too untalented to ever be on-trend. Who can’t move fast enough to record a dance for TikTok. Who sent her mum a how-to video for Dalgona coffee but never made it herself. Who doesn’t own a hand mixer. Who doesn't like sourdough.

Tapioca pearls uncooked_mod
What remains of 3kg bag of uncooked tapioca pearls. (Photo: Hidayah Salamat)

I ordered a 3kg vacuum-sealed bag of ready-to-cook tapioca pearls from a place called Boba Planet. 

I’m going to be pretty depressed this Hari Raya weekend. Every single custom I’ve practised my whole life is no longer part of today’s reality.

READ: Circuit Breaker Diaries: Ode to my neighbourhood barber and all the ghosts of haircuts past

That includes stirring my pot of rendang for almost an hour and watching it like a hawk so it's cooked through and is the perfect texture (I'm kidding - I'm happy as long as it doesn't burn). 

What I’m going to be doing instead is stirring a pot of tapioca pearls over 30 minutes so they don’t stick. I’ll be watching them evolve in that time from a fish-food brown to a midnight-black. I’ll be showering them with cold water.

And then I’ll be putting them in everything from Bandung to Coke (don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it). Rest assured, I will also be fulfilling my dream of plunging my hand into a bowl of the gummy goodness. 

And everything will be alright.

Hidayah Salamat is a deputy editor at CNA Digital, "baju butterfly" wearer and proud supporter of home-based businesses.

Source: CNA/mm

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