A transparent mug made of elastic polypropylene sealed with cellophane to be pierced by an oversized straw. The content is sweet; it’s tea with milk and sugar and a generous dash of fruit juice. After the first few sips, little balls start popping into your mouth through the straw. What follows is an unfamiliar experience of chewing and drinking at the same time. The human brain is caught by surprise, yet after a few seconds it signals: Taiwanese bubble tea is not bad at all.
But as it often goes with things that give great pleasure, the intellect inevitably spoils it all. It alerts: “Beep, beep, beep – calories plus preservatives plus coloring wrapped in plastic”.
Bubble tea is believed to have been invented in the 80ies in Taiwan, and not many visitors have left the island without having tried the specialty. The immensely popular drink is sold at soft drink bars on Taiwan’s street corners, night markets and in the food courts of department stores. The bubbles, or pearls, as Taiwanese call them, are little balls made of jelly or tapioca starch. Taiwanese who have immigrated to Canada and the US have long since introduced the goody to the other side of the Pacific. There, bubble tea has continued its successful career, and for quite a few Taiwanese living abroad, it provides a decent source of income.
“Taiwanese bubble tea is addictive”, says Cindy Chen, who in the past made a living with her own bubble tea shop in Canada. “People feel guilty after a big fill of soft drink, but bubble tea is tea, and tea is something that is considered good and healthy.”
Few people know more about the secrets of bubble tea than Cindy Chen. In 2003, she moved from Taipei to Toronto. Lacking experience and qualifications that would have been of good use in the Canadian job market, the idea of getting Canadians hooked to Taiwanese bubble tea crossed Mrs. Chen’s mind. Her first steps were all about strategy. Toronto has a huge Chinese community that frequents its own malls. Mrs. Chen recalls: “I walked through the Chinese malls, and there was one bubble tea stall after another.” She noticed fierce competition among the sellers. Apparently the only way those stalls could keep selling was to make the bubble tea cheaper and cheaper. Mrs. Chen understood the rules of the game. She explains: “The quality of the bubble tea sold in Canada had nothing in common with its delicious counterpart in Taipei. That stuff was only sugar and water.”
Thus Mrs. Chen decided to sell Taiwanese bubble tea at a ‘white’ mall. There was no competitor, so Mrs. Chen’s ‘tea shop 168’ could keep the price and therefore the quality of the bubble tea reasonably high. The result: hundreds of Canadians became lovers of Taiwanese bubble tea, with some customers coming every single day.
As is the case with many great inventions, the devil is in the details. Producing high quality Taiwanese bubble tea isn’t child’s play, Mrs. Chen points out. There are various factors that have to be mastered, such as the exact amounts of tea and ice. The bubble tea maker has to be extraordinarily careful with the tea’s temperature, and if the pearls are overcooked, or even worse, not cooked long enough, the bubble tea experience is bound to become a disappointment. That, especially when dealing with ‘foreign’ customers who would try once and never again, was something Mrs. Chen had to avoid at all costs.
While running the ‘tea shop 168’, Mrs. Chen mastered the art of bubble tea making to perfection. She even came up with a cunning trick to make western passers-by so curious that they couldn’t resist buying and trying. Mrs. Chen explains: “If you want to attract westerners, you have to showily shake the tea in its shaker, just like a bartender does.”
Ever since bubble tea came into existence, there has been controversy over its origins. Although several Taiwanese entrepreneurs claim to be the inventors, two legends concerning the history of bubble tea prevail. One traces back to the Taichung of the early 80ies, where a tea house owner is believed to have accidentally discovered bubble tea by experimenting with an unusual range of ingredients. The legend goes that the makers of a Japanese television show discovered the new drink, and thus bubble tea shot to stardom.
Some, however, believe that bubble tea originated nowhere other than Tainan, the southern city that was Taiwan’s capital during the Qing Dynasty. For some reason the people of Tainan argue that their claim is proven by the fact that the little balls that give the drink its name are black.
Even more confusing than the historical quarrels are the drink’s many names. The Internet encyclopedia Wikipedia lists no fewer than eight Chinese-language variations and ten in English. To most Taipeiers, however, bubble tea is calledzhenzhu naicha, which literally translated means ‘pearl milk tea’.
According to the website caloriecount.com, which is all about, well, counting calories, a mug of Taiwanese bubble tea comes over the counter with no fewer than 440 calories. The calorie counters’ calculation is simple enough to understand: it takes one hour of cycling to get rid of one mug of bubble tea.
These kinds of figures make Mrs. Chen remember one of her customers back in her days in Toronto. The young man worked at the mall, and according to Mrs. Chen, he came every day. He wasn’t obese but lean and slender, and when after a month or two, Mrs. Chen commented on this, he replied: “Taiwanese bubble tea is so awesome, it has simply become the best replacement for my lunch meal.”