Eating. the devil's balls. (tapioca).
To begin this story, I have to describe my lab. The main part of it is a square room, with three microscopes on three sides, facing (obviously) in different directions. A round table is against the fourth wall (actually, a glass wall into an atrium). Therefore, most conversations are between people facing in different directions. (Sometimes they are in different languages as well, but that is another matter entirely). Quiet moments are rare. Conversation bounces around, like billiard balls knocking against each other and traveling off along random trajectories, but one thing always leads to another. Sometimes it is like a game of telephone, where you begin with one thing and end with something else entirely, interrupted by moments when certain members of the lab burst into song.
I am not exactly sure what set off this particular conversation, but I believe something I said led to D. talking about a shop that sells bubble tea, which led to a conversation about exactly where this particular shop was. D. was somewhere behind me and to the left. I heard K. say very quietly, directly behind me and to my right (we were at the two microscopes closest to each other), that the first (and only) time she had bubble tea she drank it and then immediately threw up because she had no idea that the bubbles in bubble tea were giant tapioca pearls. Which led to this comment, from me: I guess for you tapioca is, like, the devil's balls. That, in turn, led to K. asking me, did you just pull that phrase out of your ass, or is that something people actually say? (Apparently I do just sometimes pull comments like that out of my ass. Doesn't everyone?).
It has occurred to me that tapioca is one of those polarizing foods, like brussels sprouts (known to many as Little Green Balls of Death), or aspic, or perhaps liver. Either you love it or it makes you want to hurl (if you haven't already). I was introduced to it as a child, when some of the Chinese restaurants we frequented would serve a dessert soup of tapioca and honeydew melon floating in hot coconut milk. It was creamy and sweet and the tapioca was like tiny transparent pearls that melted on the tongue, and I was always disappointed when we were served red bean soup instead. Perhaps people who loathe tapioca were traumatized by lumpy puddings or however else you serve it. For me it meant the flavors of coconut and honeydew in contrast to the slippery texture of the tapioca. I was a teenager when I discovered bubble tea, and that would be another matter entirely.
As with many other things, I discovered bubble tea in Taipei. It was one of several adventures in eating that was introduced to me by my cousin 4 (so-called because she is the fourth of seven sisters). She is the one who took me to the night market to eat oysters scrambled with eggs and sheets of translucent jelly noodles, to a Japanese restaurant to eat that unaju-don which surpassed all others, and who took me to a tiny shop on a summer night to drink bubble tea. I must have been seventeen. It was late at night, humid the way it always is in Taipei during the summer. We went to one of those tea bars that were popular at the time (perhaps they still are). It was a shoebox of a place, walls, ceilings, chairs, tables, all made of polished wood, full of young people. Here, she said, handing me a sweating plastic cup with a fat straw sticking out of the top, drink this. And everything changed.
You can get bubble tea with different flavors of tapioca pearls, red tea, black tea, green tea, tea flavored with juice, tea flavored with herbs and spices, probably. Or iced coffee. It is sweetened and made creamy with condensed milk, poured over those huge bubbles of tapioca and ice. There is nothing better on a hot day. You need those special straws, wider than normal straws so you can suck the black pearls from the bottom of the cup. Sometimes they get stuck, and you have to really create enough...suction so they come popping up the straw into your mouth, like Augustus Gloop shooting up the chocolate-pipe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Preparing tapioca is, apparently, a time-consuming process - you soak them, boil them, and let them cool before adding them to the tea (or maybe I've got it all wrong). A bubble tea made with pearls that are still chalky in the middle (undercooked) or are too mushy (overcooked) is a sad bubble tea. A really terrible bubble tea involves somehow both overcooking and undercooking the pearls, a real test of skill. The best ones have tapioca pearls that are soft and chewy all the way through, taking on the flavors of tea and condensed milk as you simultaneously drink the milky iced tea and eat the bubbles. (Sometimes they are called boba). They taste of my childhood, of sweltering Taipei days and warm nights spent wandering through the markets, past the lighted shop windows. One sip and I am back there again.