I MUST ADMIT that, as a drinks columnist, I never expected cheese to figure heavily into any of my writing. While there seems to be a concerted effort worldwide to top everything with cheese, it generally does not find its way into your drinking glass, at least not on purpose. But it is a new year, and I am feeling adventurous, so I think it’s time to examine something I recently started noticing on the menus of some of my favorite boba tea joints, but never thought to actually order: salted cheese tea.
No; this is not some probiotic trend gone horribly awry; nor is it, as you might think, some obscure Scandinavian food invented out of desperation by starving Vikings. Salted cheese tea is a new phenomenon, trendy among boba tea drinkers.
If you have ever had milk tea, or boba tea, you are familiar with its sweet, often-creamy flavor profile, enjoyed in flavors like matcha, ube or Thai tea. Now imagine topping that with an inch-thick layer of what is essentially a cheesecake smoothie heavily spiked with salt, and you have an idea of what you’d get if you ordered salted cheese tea instead.
The concept of whipped cheese on milk tea originated among the night market vendors of Taiwan, where the concoction began life quite humbly as powdered cheese whipped into milk and topped with a sprinkle of salt. That this caught on across Asia bewilders me a bit, as Asians are by far the most likely humans on Earth to be lactose-intolerant. Apart from jiggly Japanese cheesecake and the fermented yaks’ milk of the Steppe, one does not heavily associate cheese with East Asian cuisine for this reason. But whatever. People liked it, and the powdered cheese soon was upgraded to cream cheese and heavy cream or milk, blended (or topped) with rock salt.
The salt part seems an integral part of the flavor profile, and to me it also makes the least sense. Drinkable cream cheese has a certain apocalyptic decadence to it, like bacon beer or the concept of using pork belly as a garnish: appropriate for a time when none of us are buying real estate because we might be living in Waterworld by the time we have any real equity.
I understand drinking cream cheese, even if I don’t enjoy it. And normally, I am a big fan of salt, even in drinks. I even have been known to add a pinch of salt to my smoothies to balance the flavors. But I have to admit I do not quite understand the appeal of salted cheese tea. To me, the experience is jarring, like finding chocolate in my pastrami sandwich. I suspect it has to do with increasing the umami; in fact, a shop called Little Fluffy Head in Los Angeles pushed the umami level to 11 by using white cheddar in its foam.
Also, actually drinking salted cheese tea (aka cheese tea, or cheese boba, etc. — same thing, and there will be salt) poses a bit of an engineering problem if you wish to enjoy your milk tea with boba. Most vendors dissuade patrons from stirring the tea at all; the drink is best appreciated in layers, sipped from an open cup, ensuring that each mouthful gets an equal amount of sweet beverage and gooey, marshmallowlike topping. (My drinking companion and I stirred one of our teas as an experiment. We were not impressed.)
This, however, precludes the use of the cartoonishly oversized straws you get for slurping up the little jewel-like tapioca boba balls at the bottom of the cup. If you want to experience all three at once, it requires a level of lingual dexterity that might require you to grow a second mouth. So maybe pick one or the other, unless you are the kind of weirdo who saves the boba for the end.
At Moo Bar in Westlake (my number one go-to spot for boba tea, by the way: themoomilkbar.com), you can get any milk tea topped with salted cheese. The menu highlights matcha, Oreo and wintermelon as customer favorites, but feel free to mix and match. The salted cheese topping is particularly decadent and thick, so you’ll get the full spectrum of the experience, short of whipping up some Roquefort and lathering it onto a milkshake at home. (But if you do, patent it. Because people are buying.)