Bubble Tea Got Me Through College, So I Went to Where It All Started
My friends raved about this peculiar beverage but, a small-town kid, I couldn’t understand the allure. Eventually, when my workload at university grew, it became my comfort drink.
Pouring the liquid into my plastic cup, it’s thick, and creamy, and steamy. “The locals still call it ‘pearl tea,’” culinary guide Ai-Jia Yu tells me, adding, somewhat mysteriously, and without further explanation, “they also call it Kung Fu tea—but not the martial art.” Soon enough, the small balls of silicone rise to the surface, and as the ice melts in my cup and the tea rapidly cools, I get ready to tip back a glass of bubble tea, in its very birthplace.
I am no stranger to bubble tea. Attending school in Montreal, I made frequent trips to the city’s one-street Chinatown and a small, very unpretentious restaurant there (I once saw a mouse scurry across the dining room) became a Friday night mainstay for me. My friends raved about this peculiar beverage but, a small-town kid, at first I couldn’t understand the allure—cold tea, sucked through a giant straw, big enough to inhale those chewy, mostly tasteless gobs of silicone. But eventually, when my workload at university got heavy, it became my comfort drink (and food).
On a trip back from a couple days at the picturesque resort town of Sun Moon Lake, I stop in Taichung, Taiwan’s second city, where it all began back in 1987. Since its invention back then, bubble tea has become a global phenomenon—some $2 billion is consumed every year, and that market is growing. Smaller and, arguably, cooler, than the capital Taipei, Taichung is a city of almost three million, and is home to the national science museum, the national symphony orchestra and the national fine arts museum. Before the workshop, I wandered around the massive, free-flowing National Taichung Theater, a 620,000-square-foot opera house that includes experimental dining spaces and whimsical shops and a wide variety of culinary and arts workshops.
Taichung has also become a magnet for the country’s hipsters. I bought a package of teabags—packed playfully into a record slip that featured, for some reason, a dog listening intently to a gramophone—at Miyahara Formosa, a former eye clinic built in 1927 where the smiling employees dress in vintage, vaguely military-style uniforms. The handsome, restored red-brick building later housed a government health office, then abandoned, becoming derelict before being restored into its current form. Now the handsome space sells sweets and records-that-aren’t-records and hosts an ice-cream shop where hungry locals (hipsters and non-hipsters alike) line up out the door to order decadent scoops piled high with toppings.
But I’m in town, mostly, for the bubble tea. As it turns out, the history of this milky, sugary, tapioca-y treat is somewhat complicated. Sitting at a table in the Chun Shui Tang Tea House for their Pearl Milk Tea Workshop, I have all the elements before me—bucket of ice, small plastic shaker, and a few more ingredients handmade here in house—sugar cane syrup, black tea, milk, and their own secret-recipe house-made black tapioca pearls. Yu addresses, first, the fact that it’s served cold. “This is a hot place, and we needed something refreshing,” she explains, quite practically—spring and summer in Taiwan is a very humid time.
The formula, pioneered by company founder Liu Han-Chieh, and then later by product development manager Lin Hsiu Hui, went through various incarnations, starting with a shaken black tea with sugar cane syrup in the early 1980s that became a phenomenon on its own. “When you shook it, you got bubbles—and that’s why we called it bubble tea.” The condensed milk and the tapioca—the latter a popular element in local desserts—came a bit later. “She thought, ‘I like milk tea, and I like tapioca—what would it be like together?’”
The resulting concoction spread across Taiwan—now there’s a bubble tea joint everywhere you turn—and to neighboring countries, to Japan, and Korea, and on to Southeast Asia, eventually brought to North America by Taiwanese moving abroad. Vendors now sell hundreds of different varieties of the tea, and Chun Shui Tang alone sells some 80 different varieties. Employees undergo a rigorous, months-long training program to learn the special culture of the place—and how to make all those 80 drinks. You can also find a menu of typical Taiwanese snacks and light meals, which includes everything from Kung Pao chicken to braised bean curds, and pickled cabbage (and French fries, if that’s more your thing).
Yu walks me through the process, combining the various elements in the shaker, showing me the perfect finger placement to leverage an optimal, 30-second shake. As I pour it from the shaker, hot, over the ice, the tea comes out pleasantly foamy—Yu approves. Taking a first sip, the liquid goes down easily, crisp and cool, sweet but not cloying. I take a moment to drink and chew on the tapioca, too.
As she hands me certificate inscribed in both English and Chinese recognizing my successful completion of the course, I ask Yu if they expected this hometown beverage’s rather astounding global popularity. “It was really surprising. We never thought it would spread all over the world,” she says. “But we knew it was special, and wanted to share it.” And I got to enjoy it here, where it all began—a long way from winter in Montreal, no snow outside, no mice inside, just a fresh, foamy cup in front of me.