IF I COULD write this essay as a letter to other lovers of the gelatinous, I would extol the pleasures of these drinks as they happen in slow-motion time. Some boba drinks contain multiple jellies: boba followed by basil seeds followed by lychee or grass jelly, followed by a fruit drink or a tea. Some bobas at the slushy end of the drink menu are layered with flavors like ube and coconut milk. Driving around the SGV with my son during the pandemic, trying to get away from the hygienic pandemic containment field defined by masks and car windows and windows and doors and fences, we drove to Rosemead to Neighbors Tea House to try the smashed avocado and durian drinks as well as the mung bean drinks, none of which we had with boba but which seemed boba-aligned in their indifference to any cultural line between drink and food.
We tried The Alley’s Snow Strawberry Lulu and Brown Sugar Deerioca as well as the exquisite snow velvet muscat black tea, each of them a meditation on the kind of symphonic experience that sweetness can make musical. At the Boba Guys, we tried the perfect candy drink Banana Milk, the smoky Black Sugar Hojicha, and their highly photogenic strawberry matcha latte and strawberry rice milk drinks. We tried the peach tea and the strawberry fruit teas at Dragon Boba in La Cañada, and ogled but did not try the boba donuts. By far some of the best boba we had was the housemade boba at Tea Maru in Arcadia, where we tried the Strawberry Fluffy Matcha, layered atop a berry jam bottom, and the brilliant Okinawa Slush that flips the whole paradigm and puts their homemade brown sugar boba on the top of the drink.
Boba’s pleasing categorical and sensory promiscuity is summed up in the boba shop’s ubiquitous wide straw, so completely opposite to the anemic straws of Western fast food. The former are made to not just let a liquid through but actually to let in food-like drink. This confusion of eating categories is perhaps what some people can’t take about boba drink culture: if Lévi-Strauss long ago proposed a culinary triangle that elevated the West from the Rest via a differentiation between the primitive Raw and the cultured Cooked, Western food cultures tend to assume the difference between food and beverages, with the exception of the historically virtuous smoothie. Boba drinks are food and drink, or along another line, drinks that are more complex than a quick sip that slides down the throat. Boba tea from a really quality boba shop insists on a complex and interesting sensory experience that is visual as well as flavorful, that choreographs layers of texture that are as casually beautiful as they are sensually complex.
How does one find a resting place in a culture that is not one’s own? Is there a way to approach a world of difference without stealing from it? There are many bad racial subjects in food culture, just as there are in the world: the appropriators, the people who lift ingredients and transport them to other foods without understanding or appreciation for local food technologies; the cosmopolitans, so eager to recite facts and knowledge about food cultures not their own; the thieves who take recipes from their original knowledge holders and reproduce them deracinated and unrecognizable. And in turn there are the “good” racial subjects, who write only about their own lineages and cultures. The immigrants nostalgic for a taste and feel of home, banking on recreating their memories as closely as they can approximate.
One shorthand way to talk about the politics of difference in food has been through bell hooks’s cannily marketable phrase “Eating the Other,” in which usually white consumers devour exotic difference metaphorically and figuratively, while not paying attention to the people whose lives and complexity they commodify. These are the slings and arrows thrown so easily around social media debates on race and difference and eating, and some of them land where they should, and it is all so very tiring. We are in a tiring time.
A more generous and gentle take might be that there are places and histories where people and their desires cross each other — where touch happens, where the sensory congruences that shape each of our innermost senses of having private desires and tastes in fact overlaps and resonates, as history or as a shared present. It is harder work to get there: history is dense and chewy that way.
Neighbor’s Tea House (https://www.instagram.com/neighborsteahouse/?hl=en)
4213 Rosemead Boulevard, Suite H2 Rosemead, CA 91770
The Alley (https://www.thealleyus.com/menu)
301 W Valley Boulevard, Unit 102 San Gabriel, CA 91776
Boba Guys (https://www.bobaguys.com)
11135 Magnolia Boulevard, Unit 170 North Hollywood, CA 91601
Tea Maru (https://www.teamaru.us)
57 Wheeler Avenue, Unit A Arcadia, CA 91006
Further Boba Reading:
O’Connor, Kaori. “Beyond ‘Exotic Groceries’: Tapioca/Cassava/Manioc, a Hidden Commodity of Empires and Globalisation.” In Global Histories, Imperial Commodities, Local Interactions, pp. 224–247. Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2013.
Carney, Judith A. “Subsistence in the Plantationocene: Dooryard gardens, agrobiodiversity, and the subaltern economies of slavery.” The Journal of Peasant Studies 48, no. 5 (2021): 1075–1099.
Daly, Lewis. “Cassava Spirit and the Seed of History: On Garden Cosmology in Northern Amazonia.” In Anthropological Forum, vol. 31, no. 4, pp. 377–395. Routledge, 2021.
deGuzman, Jean-Paul R. “Beyond ‘Living La Vida Boba’: Social Space and Transnational, Hybrid Asian American Youth Culture.” Amerasia Journal 32, no. 2 (2006): 89–102.
Wei, Clarissa. “How Boba Became an Integral Part of Asian-American Culture in Los Angeles.” L.A. Weekly. January 16, 2017. Accessed February 27, 2022.
Kyla Wazana Tompkins teaches at Pomona College. She has written about food, race, and culture as a journalist and scholar for over 20 years.