Bubble tea is a Taiwanese drink that was invented in Taichung in the 1980s. Today, though, it can be found all over the country and Taiwanese people cannot get enough of it! Like the locals, I love bubble tea, too. After a pork belly gua bao or other street food snacks, a bubble tea can be a godsend!
The “bubble” refers to the foam created by shaking the tea. Ice-blended versions are usually mixed with fruit or syrup, resulting in a slushy consistency. The oldest known bubble tea consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and syrup or honey. Cooked tapioca pearls and other mixers (such as vanilla extract or honey) are added at the end.
Walking around large Taiwanese cities such as Taipei or Kaohsiung, I found it common to find shops entirely devoted to bubble tea. These shops are very popular with the younger Taiwanese crowd, as they all look for a cool drink to accompany a street snack after an afternoon’s shopping or an evening on the ale! My particular favourite bubble tea brands in Taiwan are 50 Lan, Gong Cha, Chatime, ShareTea, and CoCo. Some of these cafés use plastic dome-shaped lids, while others serve it using a machine to seal the top of the cup with plastic cellophane. The cellophane is then pierced with an oversized straw large enough to allow the pearls to pass through.
Tapioca balls (boba) are the prevailing chewy titbits in bubble tea, but a wide range of other options can be used to add similar texture to the drink. When I first began trying bubble tea, I got a weird sensation as I sucked up these balls through the straw – for a moment I thought my drink had become infiltrated by a wasp and I had just swallowed it! But when you get used to the sensation (it’s not really a European/American custom), you’ll realise that it’s all part of the experience. In addition to tapioca balls, green pearls can be added to the bubble tea, which give off a hint of green tea flavour and are chewier than the traditional tapioca balls, plus the Japanese favourite Azuki bean can give the drinks an added flavour and texture.
Outside of Taiwan, I have enjoyed plenty of bubble tea (weird flavours) at Gong Cha in Singapore, where I am always surprised at just how long the queues are! It is certainly organised chaos as Singaporeans gather together for a bubble tea in the middle of their shopping sprees, or after school. In the Chinatown region of London, there are also a plethora of bubble tea shops opening these days – including Chatime straight from Taiwan – and occasionally I do remind myself of my travels in Taiwan by buying a drink or two. So it seems that the bubble tea craze has well and truly taken over the world – and we have Taichung to thank for that!