"I always find people spit out their first bubble tea. They're super reactive to it. Then the second one, they're like, 'this is so weird'. But by the third one, they're suggesting we get bubble tea." Maxine Rae - Law student/Good Food
I feel so old sometimes. Well not old in myself exactly, but old in being so completely out of touch with the youth of today. But then that's because youth is so fast-moving isn't it? And it was ever thus. As soon as we master the current youth thing - iPods, smart phones, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok those things become unfashionable - probably because we have mastered them - and youth moves on. Bubble tea may be one of those things. It's possible that it's almost over before it began for me. Nevertheless this post has been an enlightening ride through a whole lot of different things. It was fun. I learnt a few things along the way - mostly about how weird the world is really. No that's a bit unkind. Interesting anyway.
Above is a photograph I took this morning in Woolworths. David was buying something and I was just idling around the shelves when this particular bay in the tea section caught my eye. Probably because of all the 'Special' stickers. And I swear I have never noticed these products before, and I do peruse the tea shelves every now and then. Not because I like tea - I basically really don't like tea - but because I am aware that this is a particularly fashion conscious part of the supermarket scene.
So I thought I would look into it. And it is sort of interesting.
I'll begin at my beginning, not the beginning of bubble tea. Well not my beginning either, but an early memory. School dinners - tapioca pudding - frog spawn we called it. Ugh. I loathed it and had to force it down.
In 2003 the BBC Good Food team did a survey of the most loathed school puddings and tapioca pudding apparently came out on top, although as The Guardian columnist Donald MacLeod said:
"Few of today's children will ever have heard of it, let alone encountered this product of the cassava root lurking in a bowl (not many of them have seen real frogspawn either, come to that).
That probably means tapioca - originally eaten by the Mayas in central America - is timed for a revival in the hands of Delia or Nigella"
And he's definitely sort of right there, but perhaps not because of Delia or Nigella - more because of the love affair with Asian food. The Asians seem to love it. For me, though tapioca looms so large in my head as a disgusting food that I would never touch bubble tea. Coupled with tea, which I also actively dislike, this is not a must try thing for me. And for some reason most of the tapioca pearls in bubble tea, as they are called, seem to be black, not even white.
A short word on the name. The bubble in the name is actually not strictly because of the tapioca pearls, even though most people assume it's the tapioca pearls that are the bubbles. The bubbles are in the frothy milk at the top. Which makes more sense. Bubbles are airy and tapioca pearls are chewy. The pearls are made from tapioca - or cassava root - one of those not very tasty things like taro and sago - which I think are all related, and if I had time I would look into this. For now let's just take it that the 'pearls' are from tapioca which comes from cassava:
"The starch balls are typically five to ten millimetres (0.2 to 0.4 inches) in diameter. By adding different ingredients, like water, sugar, or some other type of sweetener like honey, tapioca balls can be made to vary in color and in texture. Various forms of tapioca balls include black, flavored, popping, mini, and clear. Tapioca balls are commonly soaked in sugar syrup to make them sweet." Wikipedia
And whilst we are still on names. Boba is a slang way of referring to the pearls - a touch controversial in Chinese because:
"In Chinese, the word boba, 波霸, is a combination of a word for bubble and a word for big, which, when found together, is slang for "big breasts" or "buxom lady" Wikipedia
So in fact maybe the commentator who said the bubbles are the milk not the tapioca was wrong. Certainly 'bubble' is often used to describe the pearls.
Moving on to the beginnings of bubble tea. It has an appealing origin story/myth.
"Rumour has it that a teahouse called Chun Shui Tang in Taichung (Taiwan) began serving iced tea. The company’s product development manager, Ms. Lin Hsiu Hui, was bored in a staff meeting one day and decided to drop her Taiwanese dessert, fen yuan (a sweetened tapioca pudding) into her Assam iced tea and drink it. It was so good that they decided to add it to the menu, where it soon became the franchise’s top-selling product." EHL
Many seem to think that this story is apocryphal, with a more common origin story being along the lines of that proposed by Asian Pantry:
"Shaved ice and tapioca balls were considered common desserts in Taiwan at the time. At some point, someone thought to combine all these three popular ingredients into one drink, which gave us the iconic milk tea as we know it!" Asian Pantry
And the original version was much simpler than what it has become:
"These days, you'll find a whole swag of different variations and riffs on the OG bubble tea drink, from the milk-driven, to the fruity to the downright insane. And let's not forget the array of textural add-ins, moving well beyond a simple scoop of tapioca balls and into the good stuff like cheese foam and egg pudding." Concrete Playground 2020
And here I will digress into the evolution of language - and food. As I read the paragraph above there were three things that I had to look up. OG - what does that mean? David, and probably I as well, first thought it was Oh God. But no - it fundamentally means genuine or original. Why?
"While OG has come to be a hip way of referring or showing respect to someone who’s an expert in any facet of life, its origins lie in gang culture."
Dictionary.com will give you the whole origin story which involves a gang called Original Gagster Crips from LA. (And what does Crips mean? - well its a disparaging slang term for someone who "is partially or totally unable to use one or more limbs." - go figure) Anyway check out Dictionary.com for the full story on how OG (Original Gangster) actually came to mean respect or genuine. I won't go on - there are other stories and references - suffice to say - well - who knew?
As to cheese foam and egg pudding - well cheese foam is a mixture of cream cheese, whipping cream, milk, salt and sugar. Egg pudding is a Chinese dish that I shall talk about one day - but is basically a kind of custard. These can both be put on top of your glass of bubble tea. As can a whole range of other things. Not to mention flavourings mixed into the whole thing.
Back to the bubble tea craze and origins. Everyone at least agrees that it came into being in Taiwan some time in the 1980s and rapidly became an absolute craze. One article I saw, admittedly dated in the early 2000s, said there were over 8000 bubble tea cafés/stalls/shops in Taiwan. I do not know what the number is now.
However, I do know that the craze has spread all over the world. There were articles dated around 2013 in The Guardian talking about the arrival of the craze in Britain, and I am assuming the same for the USA but here it seems to have been around 2019, maybe a little before, that it really became a thing. Because it's not just a specialised drink of tea, it's a lifestyle - for the young. Articles talked about them being buzzy lively places, not like your standard café. A place to socialise with friends.
“Bubble teas are not seen as beverages anymore, they are more like sophisticated brand and lifestyle products,” Orlando Sanpo/EFC Group (Gotcha Tea)
In Australia there is even a blog dedicated to the topic: - The Bubble Tea Blog whose author maintains he is "on a casual quest to find the best bubble tea ever" . I don't know how up to date the website is though as his top place in Melbourne for bubble tea - Once For All - seems to be permanently closed. A victim of COVID perhaps.
So what does it taste like? Well here are two opinions:
"it's a long way from Earl Grey. ... it's more like a bizarre blend of a milkshake and a Lipton's: cool, very sugary, and – here's the rub – filled with soft little tapioca pellets. (Or bubbles. Hence the name. And the fat straw.) Downing a glass is a surreal experience, not least because half of it isn't liquid. There are so many bits of tapioca, it feels like a meal in itself." Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian
"The consistency of tapioca pearls is super addictive. When prepared correctly, the pearls should not stick together. The texture should not be too hard or too soft. In fact, the perfect texture of tapioca pearls is almost similar to fresh gummy bear!" Asian Pantry
Did I mention the straw? You drink it through a straw - a very fat straw, big enough to suck up the pearls. Often made from bamboo. And is it healthy? Why would I ask this question when there seems to be a lot of sugar involved? Well I did see some people claiming health - maybe tapioca is healthy, and maybe in its original form it might have been considered healthy, but I think it's travelled a long way from there and now has all manner of sweet sugary things added to it.
You can make it yourself though. There are lots of recipes on the net - here are two examples:
Mango bubble tea from Jane Baxter and Henry Dimbleby in The Guardian and another from The Forked Spoon. I think you can buy the pearls in your local supermarket, and if not there an Asian supermarket would certainly have them.
And speaking of the supermarket, let's go back to the inspiration of my post. Woolworths. Yes since June 2021 Woolworths has been selling commercially produced kits for making bubble tea at home. Followed by Coles I have to add, but not Aldi. They currently are selling as you can see - three brands, Chatime - which is a world-wide brand for those bubble tea shops - Avalanche - a NZ company and now Lipton's. Which perhaps is the death knell for bubble tea. Like when the oldies get into Facebook and it becomes unhip. Is Twinings next? Well as the blog AWOL says of the Avalanche brand:
"if $7 single professional bubble tea is a 10/10 for flavour, then this $8 packet of five DIY bubble teas is still a solid 8/10."
And the Bubble Tea Blog man gives Lipton a C+ in his ratings. Which is perhaps not that good. But then the sort of people who buy these things in the supermarket are probably not that into quality. I did note however, that the Chatime brands were being sold off as Clearance.
So is this a craze that is about to die, or is it going to go totally mainstream and lower in quality? Will Macdonald's be serving it soon? Or is it evolving into other things? Some people seem to think that the pearls anyway are moving on. Here are some extreme examples of what is being done with them - pizza, tartlets and sushi - there were others ...
This has all been rather fascinating, in spite of showing how out of touch with the rapidly evolving world of food and drink, and the culture of the young, I am. Supermarkets are fascinating places.