May 22--It feels a little weird reading "The Boba Book" right now.
It's the first major cookbook devoted to boba in the U.S., fittingly written by the founders of San Francisco's immensely popular Boba Guys chain, Andrew Chau and Bin Chen. But Boba Guys shut down all of its stores just before shelter-in-place -- making headlines by laying off 400 people at once -- and has only recently begun reopening locations with an order-ahead model.
For the uninitiated, "boba" refers to both the black, chewy tapioca balls that sink to the bottom of milk tea and the beverage itself. Sometimes it's called bubble tea. The New York Times once apologized for calling the tapioca balls "blobs," which Chau and Chen playfully reference in the book. The combination of warm, bouncy boba and sweet, creamy tea is a classic comfort for many Asian Americans.
"Not to over-romanticize a simple drink, but boba is an experience -- about history, culture, and identity," the founders write in the book. "And if you look hard enough into that cloudy cup, you'll probably learn something about Asia, about America, and, we think, about our society's future."
Boba tea was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, migrating through Asia and landing in the U.S. in the '90s. Many of the earliest local boba shops were franchisees of international chains, which used powdered teas and nondairy creamer. But boba has grown up since then, and a lot of that evolution is credited to Boba Guys, which quickly made a name for itself by serving drinks brewed with high-quality tea leaves, organic milk and fresh fruit. The chain grew to 16 locations across the Bay Area, Los Angeles and New York.
Part of Boba Guys' success is its on-trend Millennial brand, which is fitting given it was founded by Millennials and specializes in a product that is itself a Millennial. "The Boba Book" follows suit -- it's fun, irreverent and self-aware. There are clips of digital conversations, appearing as familiar blue and green bubbles on the side of the page, and big photos of attractive hipsters holding branded cups with reusable fat straws. Thoughtful reflections on Asian American identity and cultural appropriation are peppered throughout.
The main attraction, of course, is more than 100 recipes for boba drinks, including Boba Guys' most famous concoction: the matcha latte with strawberry puree, which is surprisingly achievable to make at home and tastes just as refreshing as when the professionals serve it.
That said, most of the recipes require making multiple components, such as a brewed tea, a sweet syrup and tapioca pearls. Even Boba Guys' basic tea blend is fairly nerdy: a mix of Assam, Ceylon and Yunnan black tea leaves that took weeks for Chau and Chen to land on in the search for a zippy, powerful yet mellow mix.
That means a lot of somewhat annoying flipping back and forth, and quite a bit of work for one drink. You might be tempted to leave it to the professionals. But the results are worth the effort, particularly if you're making a few drinks the same afternoon.
All of the Boba Guys classics, including the milk tea and horchata, are in the book, alongside drinks you normally don't see in American boba shops, such as mango lassi, Vietnamese egg coffee and an intriguing sweet potato latte. You might think these drinks don't need boba. More to the point: Anything can be boba.
The one thing this book doesn't offer is a recipe to make boba from scratch. I was surprised by the omission, especially since Boba Guys opened its own boba factory in Hayward, but it's also understandable: Making boba from tapioca starch is tedious, and even preparing store-bought boba takes more than an hour. There are other scratch-made toppings recipes, though, such as grass jelly and egg pudding.
Flipping through the pages, I couldn't help but think about the future of Boba Guys and the countless immigrant-owned boba shops around the Bay Area. It's hard not to wonder if they'll make it through the summer -- or if they'll make it until 2021.
At least now we can make great boba drinks at home.
Janelle Bitker is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @janellebitker
Recipe: Boba Guys' Strawberry Matcha Latte
You have probably seen pictures of this drink on Instagram -- it's a beauty, and the combination of tart fruit and milky green tea is a winner. The viscosity levels of each component are key to achieving the tricolored look in this recipe, adapted from Andrew Chau and Bin Chen's "The Boba Book" (Clarkson Potter). Use a thermometer to gauge the water temperature. If you don't care about the presentation, then don't fret too much, as you'll mix up the layers as you drink anyway.
1 1/2 cups cold filtered water
1 cup raw cane sugar, preferably turbinado
2 cups fresh strawberries, hulled
Strawberry matcha latte
1 1/2 teaspoons matcha powder
3 1/2 tablespoons filtered water, heated to 170 degrees
2 to 4 tablespoons toppings, such as boba (optional)
8 ounces ice cubes
3/4 cup whole milk
To make the strawberry puree: Combine the water, sugar and strawberries in a blender and blend until the mixture is pureed but still slightly chunky.
You will have more than you need for one drink. The leftover puree will keep, refrigerated, for about a week.
To make the strawberry matcha latte: Place the matcha powder in a bowl and add 1 tablespoon of the hot water. Whisk vigorously to make a paste. It should have the consistency of peanut butter. Then add the remaining 2 1/2 tablespoons hot water and whisk vigorously until any remaining clumps disappear.
Put the toppings, if using, in a large glass. Pour in 6 tablespoons of the strawberry puree. Add the ice and the milk. Then gently pour the matcha over the iced milk, aiming for the ice cubes to keep the layers cleanly separated.
Recipe: Boba Guys' Tapioca Balls
You can put tons of care into sourcing and brewing tea for boba, but if the tapioca balls are hard and improperly cooked, the whole drink is ruined. That means this recipe, adapted from Andrew Chau and Bin Chen's "The Boba Book" (Clarkson Potter), is extremely important. The goal is to get them to be QQ -- the Taiwanese term for pleasing chewiness. Don't use boba that's labeled "quick cook" or "instant" -- that kind of boba has an undesirable hardening quality. Instead, look for brands like Bossen and Lollicup from Taiwan, available online or at some Asian grocery stores. The key things to remember are to stir frequently, or else the bottom will burn, and that thetapiocaballs need to be served fresh -- no more than 4 hours after they're made -- or else they'll turn mushy.
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup white sugar
1 cup boiling-hot filtered water
1 quart filtered water, plus more as needed
1 cup dried tapioca balls
To make the house syrup: Combine the brown and white sugars in a heatproof bowl. Whisk in the hot water until dissolved. You will make about 2 cups. Store leftover syrup in the refrigerator.
To make the boba: In a medium saucepan, bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add the boba and cook for 30 minutes, stirring frequently during the first 10 minutes to prevent the boba from burning. Cover and stir occasionally for the remainder of the time. Add more hot water if necessary to keep the tapiocaballs covered.
Take the pot off the heat and let the boba rest for another 30 minutes. Strain the boba through a colander or a strainer, discarding the water, and pour them into a mixing bowl. Stir in the 1/2 cup of the house syrup and let soak for an additional 30 minutes until the boba absorb some of the sweetness; they won't get any sweeter if they continue to sit longer.
Serve immediately or hold the boba warm or at room temperature for no more than 4 hours. When you add the boba to drinks, scoop some of the balls out with a little strainer to leave the syrup behind.
(c)2020 the San Francisco Chronicle
Visit the San Francisco Chronicle at www.sfchronicle.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.