Tapioca pearls for homemade bubble tea have been located, in both classic black and multicolored. I found them tonight at the H Mart in Merrifield, VA, just past Gallows Road. If you've never tried them before, now you've got no excuse.
Ever since I've had my grand idea about improving iced chai, I've been thinking about implementing a solution on my own. So tonight I went to the Super H, an Asian market not far from my house, to try and pick up some tea bubbles.
I love Asian markets. For one thing, it's just the simple, giddy pleasure of a novel experience. Items are available for purchase at a Super H that you will never, I promise you, see at a Giant or a Shoppers. There are whole squid and octopi available, shrink-wrapped for freshness, in the seafood section. These same creatures, along with a wide variety of other animal and ocean life, are also found freeze-dried an aisle down. The meat section includes porkchops and steaks, but there's also a good supply of "bull pizzle," and I'm pretty sure that is exactly what it sounds like. Can you even imagine walking up to a butcher in the US and asking to have two pounds of bull pizzle? You'd either get laughed at or hit on.
Those are just the items that typical white Americans might have heard about. There's a lot of produce, various roots and vegetables, that we don't grow domestically. There are uncommon spices. I personally enjoy the collection merely labeled Asian Snack. Some of the candies found under Asian Snack look like their American counterparts, and of those, some of them will actually be the same. The rest will either be dopplegangers shocking to the unexpected or wholly unconventional packages, perhaps made of shrimp. The Asian Snack aisle also contains Pocky. I've never really understood the geek fascination with Pocky. It's good, but it's very expensive for what it is.
Shopping at an Asian market, unless you can read Korean, is probably done by looking at the pictures on the package. For some reason, all of the stores around here are Korean-owned, like Super H and Grand Mart. Even if it were all in Chinese, I'd probably have a lot of trouble reading it. Korean, being a phonetic language that is completely unrelated to Mandarin, leaves me wandering back and forth and peering at the hanzi/English translations on the back of various packages. You could try to ask for help, but the managers are probably no-where to be found. The stockboys are Latino of one flavor or another and seem to collectively view the whole store as a colossal joke--you might or might not get an accurate answer.
Side note: speaking of Hispanic employees and language conflicts, one of my friends (who is Japanese) took a temporary position at one of these markets. They put her to work giving out samples of flavored soy milk. I went to visit her with my then-girlfriend and found her mooning over one of the stockboys, who didn't speak much English (and hers wasn't terribly expressive at the time). We joked about learning Spanish so she could flirt properly. In response, this cute Japanese girl, who had always seemed to be a total innocent, asked me to translate the phrase "I want to melt in soy milk with you." To this day, I haven't found a more interesting subject for translation.
The other interesting trend to be aware of, should you choose to patronize one of these grocery stores, is that they often contain smaller shops dedicated to cheap consumer goods. If you want a really good rice cooker or a set of sushi plates, that's where you can find them. Larger stores sometimes have clothing and imported video rental stalls. You pay for these things separately. When I was in China, the "malls" there operated on a similar model--instead of having separate storefronts, the inside is one huge space with booths for various wares. I'm assuming that the domestic stores have simply imported the idea, just as if they had brought it over on a pallet with boxes of Haribo Peaches.
There are times when I wish I could pick up and take another trip overseas. There are still a lot of countries I haven't visited, and working at the Bank (where people take frequent vacations or home leave) can revive my wanderlust. Stepping into the Super H is a trip just out of the ordinary, and one that doesn't invoke any jet lag. I wish it had been a trip resulting in tea bubbles tonight, but they were absent, which surprised me. The iced chai revolution will have to wait at least one more night.