Drinks Issue

Tasting Tradition with Boba

Taiwanese treat rich with European and Asian influence is served up at Kalispell’s Chi Café

By Skye Lucas
Matcha Milk Boba Tea with Cherry Popping Pearls and Taro Coconut Boba Tea with Sea Salt Creme and Tapioca Pearls from Chi Cafe in Kalispell on Aug. 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Boba, also known as bubble tea or boba tea, is brewing in downtown Kalispell at the Chi Café. The chewy beverage is unlike any other iced tea in the valley and derives its name from the “boba,” or tapioca balls, that are mixed in. 

Boba strays from other conventional black and green teas because it is a combination of tea, milk, sugar and tapioca balls, and requires a large drinking straw. Traditional boba comes from the cassava shrub, where the extracted cassava starch, also called tapioca, is rolled into bite-sized balls that are boiled and flavored with brown sugar or honey.

When Chi Tran moved to the valley in 2015, she noticed downtown Kalispell was missing out on the latest slurping craze. Upon opening Chi Café in 2019, which specializes in Vietnamese cuisine, she took her endeavor a step further and incorporated boba, which has remained a staple at the café since. 

The full-flavored beverage originates from Taiwan and is rich with history, too. Historical scholars understand boba as a cross-cultural invention and believe both Chinese and British tea cultures brought forth the tea-based drink.  

Matcha Milk Boba Tea with Cherry Popping Pearls from Chi Cafe in Kalispell on Aug. 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Upon discovery in the Age of Exploration, Chinese tea culture was soon appropriated in Europe, where the British incorporated adding milk and sugar to their tea-drinking habits. During the Dutch colonization of Taiwan (1642-1662), the European way of drinking tea, adding milk and sugar, was introduced to Taiwan. It was not until the 1980s, however, that the fusion of the European sweet tooth with ancient Asian herbs resulted in the creation of the milky, topping-based tea. 

As a beverage and snack rolled into one, tea tasters can enjoy boba as a dessert, a snack or as a flavorful accouterment to the delicious Bánh mì sandwich that is served on a fresh baguette at the Chi Café. The delicious drink is refreshing on a hot day, and still delectable to cozy up to on a chilly evening.  

When ordering boba at Chi Café, tea sippers can order from a seasonal selection or customize their own boba. The menu features a step-by-step guide so that customers can build their boba with ease and suit the tea to their fancy. 

The tea base for boba drinks is traditionally black or green tea, but at Chi Café there are 32 flavorful base variations. From that large selection, customers can narrow their decision down to whether they would like a tea, milktea, fruit tea or a latte with no caffeine.  

After selecting the cup size, customers choose from six different types of toppings: milk foam, black boba, crystal boba, pudding, jelly and popping boba. The most classic way to enjoy a bubble tea is with the black boba topping. The addition of black boba makes the milktea or tea subtlety sweet and chewy.

Popping boba, which are little spheres filled with fruit syrups, are another popular bubble tea topping. Like the classic boba, they rest at the bottom of the tea, but unlike the flexible texture of classic boba, popping boba “pop” with fruity flavor.  

Vietnamese Hot Egg Coffee from Chi Cafe in Kalispell on Aug. 4, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Lastly, customers request their preferred temperature and the boba’s level of sweetness, ranging from more sweet to less sweet. 

Almost everything, from the baguettes to the teas, is prepared in house. Other ingredients like the Vietnamese coffee beans are imported from Vietnam, which Tran believes is what makes her coffee taste different from any other in the valley, and laborious ingredients like the tapioca balls are imported from Taiwan.

Chi Café’s top sellers include a range of coffees and teas. The Egg Coffee, which is a house special, is crafted from condensed milk, Vietnamese espresso and a sweet egg custard that floats atop. 

The Vietnamese Milk Americano, another traditional item on the menu, is an iced beverage that is more popular during warmer months. Colorful beverages include the Matcha Milk Tea, which has a matcha powder base giving it a vibrant green tea color, and the Taro Coconut Milk Tea that consists of a taro powder base, which creates the purple coloring. 

Having an open mind is crucial upon first sip, and if customers find boba to be too sweet, the café’s staff will help customers to create their perfect boba customized to their liking. 

Boba creates opportunities for bonding across cultures, which was the source of inspiration for Tran when creating Chi Café. Proud of her Vietnamese background, Tran seeks to share the flavors of her culture and other Asian cultures. And just like breaking bread, Tran sees boba as a universal experience that strangers can share from opposite sides of the world.

Chi Café is located at 264 N. Main St. #100 in Kalispell, and can be reached at (406) 407-7707 or found on Facebook.

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