Archive for April 2018

Bubble tea

The all-in-one beverage and snack

When I first wrote about bubble tea on this site in 2003, it was only just beginning to appear in the United States, though it was much better known in Canada (where I originally encountered it). This odd beverage originated in Taiwan in the late 1980s, and in the last couple of decades, it has spread all over the world, and morphed into numerous forms. Even though bubble tea isn’t as exotic as it once was, it’s still a curious concoction by any standard.

Popping Some Bubbles

What I’m referring to here as “bubble tea” is known by many names. “Boba,” a term currently in vogue in the United States, approximates the Chinese pronunciation of the key ingredient and also, conveniently, sounds like “bubble.” Other alternative names, such as “pearl tea” or “tapioca drink,” are slightly more descriptive. Basically, bubble tea is a sweetened beverage made with water, natural flavors, (usually) a dairy component, and…large tapioca balls. These boba (“bubbles” or “pearls”) are dark brown, about 7 mm in diameter, slippery on the outside, and quite chewy on the inside. The bubbles by themselves have very little flavor; their main purpose is to provide texture. Because they’re so large, you need a special, oversized straw to drink bubble tea with. Or should I say eat? Consuming bubble tea is a matter of both drinking and chewing, and after finishing a glass you feel quite full. In other words, it’s not so much an accompaniment to a snack as an entire snack and beverage all in one.

Bubble tea comes in many flavors, with some of the more popular being almond, mango, chocolate, and my personal favorite, taro. You can also find red bean, coconut, lavender, and a number of tropical fruit flavors. Nearly every outlet where I’ve seen bubble tea sold also offers it without the pearls—in some cases, you get them only by special request. That may seem to be missing the point, but the “bubble” in bubble tea originally referred to a froth on top of a blended tea beverage, not to the tapioca balls, which were a later addition. In any case, bubble tea is, for many, an acquired taste. Some people just can’t get past the idea of drinking squishy tapioca balls.

Personally, I loved bubble tea the first time I tried it, but opinions vary widely. I surveyed three of my close friends, who by sheer coincidence were all blond Canadian women. After trying bubble tea for the first time, 33% of my sample group said they enjoyed it and would drink it again. The other 67% said it was the most disgusting thing they had ever put in their mouths. Whatever other nuances could be read into that statement, my general impression was that they were not favorably disposed toward bubble tea. (One of these friends later said she had tried it again and thought it wasn’t so bad.) There’s no accounting for taste.

Pearls of Wisdom

If you want to make your own bubble tea, the most difficult part is locating the ingredients. First and foremost, you’ll need the tapioca pearls. You can sometimes find these in Chinese markets, sold dry in plastic bags rather like pasta. There are also, naturally, a number of online sources. Most pearls are dark brown, though I have seen them in various colors. To prepare them, you boil them in a generous amount of water for about a half hour, then turn off the heat and let them sit for another half hour. Rinse them, and they’re ready to go—or refrigerate them for later.

The tea itself is normally made by mixing a flavored powder with water and adding sweetened condensed milk (or, sometimes, nondairy creamer and a sugar syrup). Add ice and shake, pour the mixture into a glass with a generous portion of tapioca pearls at the bottom, and drink. There are numerous variations on this basic recipe, however. I’ve seen hot bubble tea, fruit juices with pearls, and even frozen bubble smoothies. In fact, just about any sort of beverage you can think of can be made into bubble tea. Strangely enough, at least in North America, actual tea is used only rarely as the base. For that matter, the so-called tapioca pearls are—if you want to be really nitpicky—not actually tapioca. They do have much the same consistency as tapioca, but the starch they’re made from comes from a type of sweet potato.

Bubble tea is not going to replace cola as the standard fast-food drink anytime soon. But every time I turn around I find another local shop that sells it—there are several within walking distance of my house in San Diego. Once you overcome the initial weirdness, it’s quite tasty. If your idea of a strong drink is a single-malt Scotch or a dark lager, try the drink that really has balls: bubble tea.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 26, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on February 27, 2005.

Image credit: Oliver Hallmann [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Bubble tea

Yes, it’s a blatantly self-serving pseudo-holiday, introduced by Kung Fu Tea on its 8th birthday. But no matter: bubble tea is a delicious drink, which often doesn’t contain actual tea and whose “bubbles” are made of tapioca, and today’s as good a day as any to indulge at your local boba joint. I recommend the taro flavor, and not just because it’s purple.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day


The versatile plant that keeps hundreds of millions from starvation…and kills the unwary

If you’d asked me before my recent visit to San Diego’s Museum of Man what the largest sources of carbohydrates in the world were, I would certainly have said that rice and corn (maize to most of the world) are at the top of the list (true), but any guess I might have hazarded for the number-three spot (such as potatoes, wheat, or soybeans) would have been wrong. A sign within an exhibit about the global anthropological significance of beer tells me that cassava holds that honor. I found that fact delightfully surprising because I had only a vague awareness of what cassava even is—as far as I knew, it was just not part of my experience as a resident of North America. (In fact, I’ve been eating it for years without realizing it, but we’ll get back to that in a moment.)

Cassava (Manihot esculenta) goes by many names, including manioc and yuca (not to be confused with yucca, which is an entirely different plant). It’s grown mainly for its tuberous root, which contains ten times as much starch as corn (its nearest competitor). It’s a staple food for at least half a billion, and perhaps closer to 800 million, people worldwide. It can be prepared in an astonishing number of ways—you can bake it, boil it, fry it, turn its flour into bread or noodles, or do just about anything else you can think of except eat it raw, because raw cassava will kill you.

Apart from some fiber and a fair amount of vitamin C, cassava doesn’t contain many nutrients. It does, however, contain cyanide (or, well, cyanogenic compounds that, during digestion, are converted to the form that can kill you). So before consuming cassava, one must treat it in any of numerous ways to remove the cyanide. Depending on the variety of cassava, this might range from a quick boil to days of fermentation (or more complex procedures), but luckily the plant also contains an enzyme that can convert the cyanogenic compounds into hydrogen cyanide (HCN), which can then evaporate or boil away. (Of course, if you’re so inclined—and many people in regions where cassava is a staple food are so inclined—you can use the cyanide you remove from your cassava as a poison to put on the tips of your arrows or spears.)

Cassava grows easily even in rough environments, including poor soil and near-drought conditions. It also has a very long harvesting window. These attributes contributed to its worldwide spread in popularity—though native to Brazil, it has for centuries been common in Africa and Asia. Nigeria is currently the world’s largest cassava producer.

I mentioned that I saw this sign in a beer exhibit, and that’s because cassava can be fermented not just to make it edible, but also to make cassava beer, or nihamanchi (there’s also a stronger version, called nihamanchnihamanchii, and I’d like to see you say that after imbibing cassava beer). The Shuhar people in Ecuador drink one to four gallons of cassava beer per day. Well, the adults do. Children drink only about a half gallon per day. So the sign tells me.

Weirdly, not one of San Diego’s 3.7 gazillion craft breweries has cassava beer on tap. But you can still find cassava here, or pretty much anywhere in the world, in the form of tapioca—those little starch balls in your pudding are in fact cassava starch.

Image credit: By Renatosjoao [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Pinhole camera diagram

I’ve been interested in pinhole cameras ever since I learned how to make one of out a coffee can in elementary school. A simple idea: take an enclosed container, make a small hole in one end of it, and place photo-sensitive material (film or paper) at the other end. Light comes in the pinhole and creates an image on the film or paper. It’s a simple idea, but it can produce beautiful images. Worldwide Pinhole Photography Day was created to celebrate the art of pinhole photography, encouraging people around the world to make their own cameras and take pictures with them on April 29th. The resulting images can be submitted to the official website for inclusion in an online gallery.

Image credit: By en:User:DrBob (original); en:User:Pbroks13 (redraw) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Cheng Man-Ch'ing

The meditative martial art

There’s nothing like a good action film, especially if it involves martial arts. Explosions and chases are all well and good, but I like kung fu better. I’ll eagerly watch Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, or Keanu Reeves give the bad guys a whomping using no weapons other than physical skill and a sharp mind. In the real world, though, I find the best kung fu not in the flashy, Hollywood-friendly jumps and kicks, but in a discipline your grandmother may well practice: the slow, gentle movements of a martial art called t’ai chi ch’uan.

For a westerner, the first challenge in learning about a Chinese martial art is figuring out how to pronounce it. There are several systems for representing Chinese sounds using the Roman alphabet. These varying transliterations have led to numerous spellings (“tai chi chuan,” “t’ai chi ch’uan,” “taijiquan,” etc.) and pronunciations. I’ll leave the details for another article, but if you want to avoid ambiguity it’s best to use the pronunciation “tai ji,” because the chi in “t’ai chi” is not at all the same thing as ch’i (or qi), a Chinese word usually translated as “internal energy.”

Supreme Softness

T’ai chi is based on the principles of Taoism, and its invention dates back about a thousand years. According to legend, a Taoist monk named Chang San Feng was watching a crane trying to catch a snake. Every time the bird struck with its beak, the snake would gently slide out of the way, and this defense was so successful that the crane eventually gave up. Chang remembered Lao Tzu’s words in the Tao Te Ching: “The soft overcomes the hard.” This image led him to develop a fighting art based on softness, yielding, and flexibility, rather than brute force.

The name “t’ai chi ch’uan” literally means “supreme ultimate fist,” a reference to the fact that it was considered the most advanced, and deadliest, form of boxing. For centuries, t’ai chi was a closely guarded secret, taught only to the members and close associates of a few powerful families. A variety of distinctive styles emerged, taking on the names of the families from which they originated. The earliest form was Chen style, which later evolved into Yang, Wu, and Sun styles, among others. Each style has distinctive movements and emphases—some are more athletic and explosive, others more gentle and flowing; some emphasize martial applications, while others focus on health, softness, and the internal movement of energy. (The type of t’ai chi I practice is in the Yang style, which is gentler and more subtle than the original Chen style.)

T’ai Chi Basics

The differences, however, are less important than the similarities. All forms of t’ai chi follow several basic principles, including relaxation, rootedness, separation of weight, and smooth, continuous movement from the body’s center or tan t’ien. A t’ai chi student spends months or years learning the solo form, a series of interconnected postures designed to teach these basic principles, improve balance, and strengthen the leg muscles. (Depending on the style, the number of movements ranges from fewer than ten to more than a hundred.) Although most schools of t’ai chi don’t include sparring in the manner of karate or judo, it is crucial for students to understand the martial applications of each of the form’s postures. A two-person exercise called push hands—to many, the most compelling aspect of the art—helps to serve this purpose. In push hands, partners help each other identify areas of tension by trying to push the other person off balance while maintaining their own. T’ai chi training often also includes ch’i kung (or qigong), exercises that develop healthy breathing skills and attention to the flow of one’s energy.

T’ai chi is often referred to as one of the “internal” martial arts, or neijia. In contrast with the so-called external martial arts—karate, jiu-jitsu, taekwondo, and so on—internal or “soft” martial arts focus on the movement of energy within the body. Internal martial arts do not rely on muscular strength, so hard kicks, punches, and blocks are not commonly employed. Instead, a minimum of external energy is used, and skilled practitioners blend with, rather than block or deflect, their opponents’ energy. Other internal martial arts include pa kua, hsing-i, and aikido.

Judging Your Progress

Each school and teacher takes a slightly different approach to t’ai chi. There are no ranks or belts as there are in many martial arts, as it is considered more important for an individual to assess internal growth than to take an objective measure of skill or fighting ability. Besides, t’ai chi is a very subtle art that takes most people quite a long time to master. (As one my former teachers is fond of saying, progress in t’ai chi is measured in decades.) Nevertheless, t’ai chi tournaments and competitions are quite popular in some places. Judges grade an individual’s execution of the solo form, based on adherence to the basic principles. Push hands is also done competitively, with points given for causing one’s opponent to lose balance—or, in some cases, for neutralizing a particularly intense push. T’ai chi tournaments tend to have a greater spirit of camaraderie and respect than most competitive sporting events.

People take up the practice of t’ai chi for a variety of reasons. For many, health and fitness are the primary motivations. And without doubt, t’ai chi is an excellent way to reduce blood pressure, improve circulation, strengthen muscles and bones, and develop balance. Because the movements are slow and gentle, people of any age or level of fitness can participate and benefit. Other people study t’ai chi for its martial applications, and still others like to think of it as yoga in motion—a sort of moving meditation.

My Two Left Feet

When I first started studying t’ai chi in the mid-1990s, I didn’t know anything about its history or applications, and certainly wasn’t interested in learning how to fight. My initial motivation was much more mundane: I simply wanted to learn how to move my body gracefully. I had never learned to dance or been involved in sports of any kind, and I felt clumsy and out of touch with my own body. T’ai chi certainly gave me what I was looking for. I began to develop much better balance, posture, and flexibility. And as I learned more about what it feels like to move in a deliberate and graceful way, dancing and other types of movement began to feel much more natural too.

The surprising thing, though, was that the most important lessons I learned from t’ai chi had nothing to do with physical movement at all. For one thing, I learned to relax much more easily than I could before, and by relaxing I developed a greater sense of equanimity and flexibility in dealing with other people. I found myself unconsciously applying the principles of softness and yielding to my conversations, and this frequently improved the outcome of arguments and other tense situations. Don’t get me wrong: studying t’ai chi hasn’t turned me into some sort of enlightened master exuding radiant bliss. It’s just that, on the whole, I’m calmer and more agreeable than I used to be, and, I can hope, moving further in that direction.

Don’t Try This at Home

If you’re interested in learning t’ai chi, let me offer just one word of unsolicited advice: find a good teacher. (If you’re in the San Diego area, drop me a line—I know a guy.) Don’t attempt to learn t’ai chi by reading a book or watching a video. There are many fine books and videos, of course, and these can supplement or enhance your training. But they can never correct you when your posture is incorrect—which, I can almost guarantee, will be most of the time for the first many months. (Even though I’ve been doing t’ai chi for decades, my teacher still regularly points out errors in my form, and no sooner do I correct those than he notices something else that needs adjustment.)

In some ways, practicing t’ai chi has fed my appetite for contradiction. It’s an exercise I enjoy even though I hate exercise, and it’s a martial art I believe in despite my pacifist leanings. And yet, somehow, it all makes sense. T’ai chi is, after all about balance—yin and yang, inner and outer, negative and positive. Cultivating these contrasts gives me a deeper appreciation of what lies at the center.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on April 21, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on August 10, 2004.

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day