New food: bubble tea

March 30, 2011 at 12:35 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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At the end of our block there’s a cute little cafe called Oasis Tea Zone. Practically every time I walk by it is absolutely jam packed with young Asian people talking and playing on their cell phones.  Now you might wonder just exactly what kind of tea this place sells to attract such a crowd all the time. Well, the answer is… every kind. Case in point:

The most intimidating menu ever

The most intimidating menu ever

Seriously, this menu is practically designed to make you feel stupid. But stupid in a special kind of way… culturally stupid. I’ve been to a lot of coffee shops in my life, and many of them have had big menus. But at the end of the day those menus were filled with things I could understand. Beverages whose characteristics and names made sense. This menu, however, is filled with odd and mysterious things with names that sound benign — they’re in English, anyway — and yet they give you no clue what you actually might want to order: taro milk tea? Chocolate barley tea? Pudding milk tea? Milk pudding? (What’s the difference?) Or perhaps you’d like to go with something that’s chilled: winter melon tapioca juice? A refreshing coconut greenbean slush? Or maybe an almond snow or a green mungbean shaved ice. And while you stand in the undoubtedly long line waiting to order, you look up at this imposing sign and try to figure out the nagging questions: how is slush different from snow or shaved ice? Is pudding milk tea the same as milk pudding? It says pudding is a topping, too — how does that work?

And as you sit there pondering, you hardly notice that you’re slowly stepping closer and closer to the counter while the Asian teens in front of you quickly order and pay. And then, in one horrifying moment, you notice that you’re next in line with no idea how the menu even works, let alone what to order. The people behind the counter don’t always speak English very well — and with their usual clientele, why should they? — but in just a moment you’re going to be holding up the line and all eyes will be on you. The eyes of multitudes of Asian high schoolers who, in your mind, are perhaps wondering how this white girl strayed so far from the Starbucks around the corner.

Some of these are simple and undaunting

It’s time for evasive action. You abandon your grandiose plans of understanding the menu and which drinks are drinks and which are pudding and which are toppings. You’ll have to find out next time. “Surely,” you think, “there are items on this menu that I can understand.” So you scan down the list until you find something benign: almond milk tea. You like almonds, you like milk (kind of), you like tea. So you tell the friendly proprietors and then wait for them to call your name.


And everything’s fine. Nobody laughs, everybody is friendly, and they just treat you like all the rest of the customers. While you’re waiting for your almond milk tea to arrive, you look around at the couches and tables and realize that there are actually a few other people there who aren’t Asian teenagers. And that nobody is looking at you and wondering why you aren’t drinking a venti grande latte half caff macchiato. They’re just having grand old times with their friends and phones.

The tapioca pearls

Anyway, once you get over that stress, the almond milk tea is pretty good. It’s often called “bubble tea” because of the marble-sized tapioca pearls that get dumped into the bottom of the glass. Because they’re so large — and chewy and pretty good, actually — bubble tea is served with a super-wide straw so you can suck them all up into your mouth while you’re drinking it. It’s a little strange the first time — and maybe the second and third — but it’s actually very delightful.


This past weekend there was a breakthrough in the unending menu mystery: we went to Oasis with our Chinese friends, Terry and Eva! (As we walked in, Eva whispered “I always feel so old when I come in here!”) I was super excited at the impending understanding and I eagerly told Eva that I had about 300 menu-related questions for her. Happily, during our lengthy stand in line I had many opportunities to find out everything I wanted to know. Also, to my great relief, I learned that things that are green-bean flavored aren’t American green beans. They’re mungbeans, which are apparently quite common in Chinese desserts. When I explained to her that “green bean milk tea” sounded a lot like “broccoli milk tea” to American ears, she thought that was pretty hilarious.

Anyway, keep your eyes open if you’re interested in trying bubble tea. There were places that sold it in both Atlanta and Austin, and it’s probably not too hard to find in other parts of the country as well. (I wouldn’t expect quite such a daunting menu, however. I attribute that to Oasis being in the middle of Chinatown.) Just pick one that’s a flavor you like and you won’t be disappointed. Or, if you want something less sugary, go for the original flavor: “royal” milk tea. It’s far more refreshing than the ones with the chocolate or almond or whatever flavoring added on. And if you’d like to try it but don’t have the wherewithall to try one yourself, just come visit us in Seattle and I will be your bubble tea guide. Because really, it’s very simple.

My delicious royal milk tea with delicious tapioca pearls



New food: Daifuku

January 7, 2011 at 10:49 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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At Uwajimaya this evening, Blake and I picked out some enticing-looking mochi-themed desserts from a big refrigerated case that was filled with them. There seem to be many kinds of mochi-looking things in the store, and many of them have really different names. I’m not sure if they’re all mochi or if they’re something else, but they at least look like mochi. (For those who don’t know, here’s the Wikipedia page on mochi.)

Blake picked the one in the back -- red bean -- and I picked the pineapple and macadamia nut ones in the front.

I decided to try the pineapple first. You can see that it's not very big. (That's a nickel next to it.)

See, the label clearly calls is "daifuku," but it sure looks like mochi to me.

Ahh, here we go:

Daifukumochi (大福餅?), or Daifuku (大福?) (literally “great luck”), is a Japanese confection consisting of a small round mochi (glutinous rice cake) stuffed with sweet filling, most commonly anko, sweetened red bean paste made from azuki beans. Daifuku comes in many varieties. The most common is white-, pale green-, or pale pink-colored mochi filled with anko. These come in two sizes, one approximately the diameter of a half-dollar coin, the other palm-sized. Some versions contain whole pieces of fruit, mixtures of fruit and anko, or crushed melon paste. Nearly all daifuku are covered in a fine layer of corn or taro starch to keep them from sticking to each other, or to the fingers. Some are covered with confectioner’s sugar or cocoa powder. Though mochitsuki is the traditional method of making mochi and daifuku, they can also be cooked in the microwave.

It's all squishy.

Actually, the inside looks pretty squishy too. And smells very pineappley.

Yum. Or something.

Actually, it was only okay. I took a nice big bite and thought, “Hm, this is good but kind of strange.” Then, as I chewed it some more I amended that to, “Actually yeah, this is really strange.” And when it came time to cut a second bite, I couldn’t quite muster up the enthusiasm. And, in fact, two hours later it’s still sitting on the counter on this plate looking exactly as it does in the background of this photo. So not really my favorite thing ever.

Now it was Blake’s turn:

History has shown me that red bean (called "azuki" in Japanese) isn't my favorite flavor. It looks like it's filled with chopped up dead bugs. =(

His expression says it all.

Sarah: Is it good?

Blake: No.

Ah, well, you win some, you lose some.


Guess what I got at Uwajimaya

December 23, 2010 at 1:53 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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No, seriously. Guess. Because I sure don’t know what it is.

The mystery item

The mystery item

Some sort of decorative Japanese bird feeder? This helpful side panel shows the item’s many features:

The mystery item - sideview

At least it's 100%!

Maybe the instructions will help.

The mystery item - back

This looks easy.

Are these instructions also? The price tag at the store had the word “mochi,” on it, and I know I like mochi. Maybe I cook it?

The mystery item - rear instructions

I guess I boil or bake something.

Note that the English nutritional-info sticker has the longest word I’ve ever seen on it: “takayamamochimarumochi.”

Nutritional information

Looks nutritious.

At the store I asked about six Asian employees what it was. Unfortunately, none of the people I asked turned out to be Japanese, and I got answers ranging from “I don’t know” to “Japanese … new year … rice … for good luck” A quick search for all those words in Google eventually led me to the word kagamimochi, which is apparently what this thing is. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion in which we open the box!


New food: Tonkotsu ramen

December 18, 2010 at 9:39 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Now that we live above Uwajimaya, we’re constantly trying new Asian foods with varying degrees of success and deliciousness. (Even though Uwajimaya was founded by a Japanese family, it has lots of foods from China and other places.) We recently tried kumquat cakes (so-so), smoked plum “soup” (tea?) (not very good), boiled salted duck eggs (so-so), crystal-sugar almond tea (great!) and some assorted mochi ice cream desserts (which I will cover in a future post).

One interesting aisle at Uwajimaya is almost entirely dedicated to noodles and ramen. Both sides are filled to the top with stacks and stacks of single-serving ramen in every color of the rainbow. There are so many, in fact, that it’s impossible to choose just one to try — especially when most of them don’t have any English on the package.

A grocery-store aisle full of ramen

Ramen, ramen everywhere! This photo only shows about 20% of their supply.

Over time I found a few with English translations, and after trying several I’ve finally settled on the most delicious: tonkotsu flavored!

A package of tonkotsu ramen


You might be wondering what tonkotsu is, and as far as I can tell it’s “pork bone broth.” I’m not really sure what that means, exactly, but it is SO delicious. Interestingly, unlike the Maruchan ramen sold commonly in the US, all the different bowls I’ve tried from Uwajimaya come with two or sometimes three separate packages of flavor add-ins. Usually some dry powder, dried vegetables, a little pouch of oil, and occasionally some sort of concentrated flavorful paste. This is true across brands and across flavors, so I’m assuming it’s standard with Japanese self-serving ramen.

Ramen instructions

Happily, this particular brand has instructions in English as well.

The instructions are about what you’d expect, and this particular kind has a dry flavor packet and some oil that, as far as I can tell, is totally tasteless. I’m not really sure why it’s there or what it adds, but I put it in every time anyway.

Dry on the left, oil on the right

But even the flavor packets are different than the paltry homogeneous powder that comes with the Maruchan (though it should be noted that I really love Maruchan ramen also). They’re filled with freeze-dried bits of garlic and green onions and sesame seeds and other things that I haven’t been able to identify.

Before adding water

After adding the water it looks about how you’d expect, but it’s a million times more delicious.

After adding the water, covering, and waiting for four minutes, this is how it looks.

As an aside, I have finally found a food that is easier to eat with chopsticks than with a fork! Up til now in life I have always used a spoon to cut up my noodles so they can be easily spooned into my mouth. Recently, however, I got some noodles at a restaurant with no forks on the table and no waitress convenient, so I persevered and felt pretty uncoordinated. In fact, I was sure the two Asian guys at the next table were discussing my technique derogatorily and laughing at the silly white girl pretending she knows how to use chopsticks. Later, though, I ran my process past our Chinese friends Terry and Eva and they said it was perfectly typical! So, armed with new confidence, I began eating my ramen that way every time. (Admittedly, in the photo below it was pretty tricky holding them in my left hand while I took the picture with my right.)

Ramen in a bowl held up by chopsticks

Double yum.

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