In Acquired Tastes, The Takeout explores the food and drinks we can’t live without.
Occasionally I’ll offer guided food tours in my hometown Chicago’s Chinatown, and almost always I’ll stop by one of the many smoothies bar in the neighborhood. The one I frequent is called Joy Yee, and in the summer there’s usually a long line snaking from its pick-up window.
During my food tour I’ll play this game: I order a taro shake with tapioca balls, and offer everyone a taste. I say, “This tastes like a food you’re familiar with, and I’ll bet you’ve never tasted it in frozen liquid form. What is it?” I play this with young and old, Michelin-starred chefs and Chinese food neophytes, and none have yet to solve my riddle. The answer: It tastes exactly like buttered popcorn.
Taro, tuberous and often with a light purple flesh, is a starchy, nutty-tasting staple in the Caribbeans, Africa, and Asia, but perhaps it’s most recognizable as poi in Hawaiian cultures. Its closest culinary analog is a potato or sweet potato—great roasted, mashed, and stewed—but the most accessible way to experience taro is in Chinatown bubble teas.
And here’s the thing: There’s nothing inherent in its taste that screams popcorn. But since most smoothie bars aren’t actually boiling fresh taro—they’re using the instant powdered stuff—the flavor profile registers sweeter and more palatable, which somehow, is a dead ringer for buttered popcorn. After a meal of dim sum or Cantonese barbecue, taro shakes make a damn fine chaser.