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Food Tales

A Bubble Tea Story



Bubble tea was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s. Who exactly invented it is a subject of debate. But its popularity grew by leaps and bounds and the sweet drink found its way to other Asian countries and beyond.

Bubble milk tea and pork buns. Tamsui waterfront, New taipei City

Tamsui waterfront. Two months ago. Speedy had just queued up for pork buns while I took a video of how they were made. We decided to pair them with bubble milk tea and enjoy our bread and drinks while gazing at the river. It was a beautiful moment.

Not that the food and drink were new to us. Pork buns are a-plenty in Asia and the Taiwanese version is just one among many. It wasn’t our first milk tea experience either much less our first encounter with the chewy spheres that have captivated the world.

Boba (tapioca pearls) and sago are not the same thing

Before tapioca pearls were catapulted into global fame, there was sago. My family has a long history with sago which, today, is often mistaken for tapioca pearls or boba, as tapioca pearls are more popularly known. They’re not the same thing.

Sago comes from the sago palm Metroxylon sagu while tapioca pearls, as the name so obviously makes it clear, is made with tapioca, a starch extracted from cassava, a root vegetable. In commercial usage, however, they have somehow become interchangeable. These days, buy sago and what you may be getting are tapioca pearls instead. And vice versa.

When I was a child, summer afternoons were spent waiting for the ambulant taho vendor. Carrying two vats suspended on either end of a wooden stick, hail him and he laid down the vats, filled your mug with soft bean curd, doused it with brown sugar syrup and topped it with sago. It was one of our most beloved mid-afternoon treats.

Taho, a sweet bean curd and tapioca pearl street food in the Philippines
Taho with sago

By the time I was in high school, I would become acquainted with another form of street food that featured sago. A drink that was known by the name of its ingredients. Gulaman at sago. Cubes of agar-agar and chewy sago with iced water sweetened with brown sugar syrup.

So, yes, I grew up with sago. And my fascination with them, I carried to adulthood. There’s just something about them… Spongy outside and chewy towards the center. By themselves, they are flavorless. But combine them with something sweet and they become irresistible. Tapioca pearls are like that too. So, having been a sago fan for most of my life, when the boba craze hit the country, it was hard not to get caught in it.

The bubble shake craze

In the mid 1990s, a bubble drink shop called Quickly opened in the Philippines. We discovered it in a shopping mall in Chinatown and we fast became aficionados. We were very much into the fruit-flavored shakes. And although I occasionally chose the coffee flavor, I don’t remember ordering anything with tea. Thick with milk and crushed ice, the drinks were filling especially if one opted to add tapioca pearls. It was a delightful midday snack especially during the scorching summer months.

But what really caught our attention was the machine that sealed the cups with a plastic sheet. The airtight cover meant you could shake the drink (you’re really supposed to do that to mix the flavors) without spilling the content. Even after inserting the oversized straws through which the tapioca pearls could travel from the bottom of the cup to your mouth, the drink was easier to transport. Curious about a machine that was totally new to us, we chatted up the attendants and found out that Quickly was Taiwanese. Soon after, a bevy of bubble drink chains opened around the country. Cheaper than Quickly but the quality often left much to be desired.

The age of bubble tea

As with all fads, the craze over bubble drinks waned after a few years. But, a decade or so later, bubble milk tea became popular. To this day, it still is. There’s a bubble tea milk seller in almost every street in the Philippines, and in most of Asia. The flavors are endless and the varieties are mind-boggling. For the best bubble tea experience, you have to understand what the drink is. For starters, there’s bubble tea and there’s bubble milk tea.

Bubble tea is sweetened and often fruit-flavored tea with tapioca pearls.

Bubble milk tea. Tamsui waterfront, New Taipei City

Tea, milk, sugar and tapioca pearls make up the basic bubble milk tea drink. Jazz it up with fruity flavors.

Boba shakes don’t contain tea. They are mostly milk, flavorings, ice and tapioca pearls. Think slushies with chewy balls mixed in.

No one ever said that bubble tea is a health drink

When ordering fruit-flavored bubble milk tea, one ought to know that real fruit is not part of the deal. You get fruity syrup. That should be pretty clear for anyone who has, after ordering, watched how bubble milk tea is mixed.

So, there was a series of scandals several years back…

Taiwanese syrup used in bubble tea found to be DEHP contaminated

Bubble tea ‘contains all sorts of crap’ / ‘Reckless’ report has hurt Taiwanese bubble tea industry: supplier

Taiwan recalls food products due to unapproved food additive

And, just recently, bubble milk tea has been getting attacked for the amount of sugar it contains. Right. Just because there’s tea in it doesn’t make bubble milk tea a healthy option.

Tips for a healthier bubble milk tea experience

Across the street from our apartment in Hanoi, there was a bubble tea shop. Sam and I went there a couple of times. I was surprised that there was an option to cut down on the sugar. Want just half of the usual amount of sugar? Or just a quarter? Or no sugar at all? Just say so and that’s how your bubble milk tea would be mixed.

Sam, the most bubble milk tea obsessed member of our family, told me that it wasn’t exactly a new thing. She said, there are a lot of bubble milk tea stores that give customers the same option. Walking around Hoan Kiem Lake during the same trip, we escaped the afternoon heat for a few minutes by going inside a bubble milk tea shop that offered the same low-to-no-sugar options.

So, you see, if it’s about the sugar content, it may just be a matter of finding better bubble milk tea shops.