Bubble tea steeped in youth culture

Bubble tea steeped in youth culture

[An “audio version” of this article first appeared on “The Morning Edition” with Craig Norris, CBC-KW.]


If you like to have a bit of a chew with your afternoon tea – a chilled tea, at that – then a bubble tea might just do the trick for you.

I will be honest: I have to say that over the past few years I’ve noticed bubble tea signs in several area restaurants known for their Chinese or southeast Asian fare. I love the food at these restaurants, but I have never tried the tea.

I did sample some recently, however, and for me it will be acquired taste, let’s just say. But that isn’t the case for many, many others though. It has been a popular drink, and it seems to be growing in popularity too.

A relatively new Taiwanese invention
One theory of the way bubble tea got its start dates only to the early 1980s in Taiwan. A teashop owner there observed a competitor serving a cold coffee to customers and wanted a piece of the chilled beverage market for herself. Necessity being the mother of invention, she added some fruit and tapioca to some chilled tea, and a new drink was born.

The beverage – which may also be called boba juice or pearl milk tea – started making inroads in North America in early 2000. Today, the iced drink is made with a base of tea, either black or green and with or without milk, fruit juice or pulp, a powder such as taro powder (ground from the purplish starchy tuber that is ubiquitous in southeast Asian cooking), and tapioca spheres the size of a ball bearing. A large-gauge straw is needed in order to suck up the chewy jelly-like morsels. Bubble teas with their wide range of flavours from lychee fruit to pomegranate are usually priced around the $4-$5 mark.

Experiencing a pop in popularity
There are many locations throughout the region, with a concentration near the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University. Pho Dau Bo on King Street near Eby in Kitchener serves the beverage, as does Hot Wheels Tea House on King Street in Uptown Waterloo. There is also a Chatime tea shop in Waterloo, part of a Toronto operation with about 15 locations.

At Sweet Dreams Tea Shop, a venue that got its start in 1999 at the University Shops Plaza on University Avenue at Phillip Street, Waterloo, bubble tea barista Miranda Clark describes the drink as growing in popularity.

“Bubble tea is a very popular Asian drink, but it’s not just Asian now. It’s become like an international beverage,” says Clark. “It’s your favourite kind of tea, black tea or green tea. We do rooiboses here also and herbal teas and you can mix flavours in it. You can do juices or you can do milk teas if you like dessert-like drinks.”

A youthful bubble tea culture
According to a National Public Radio report in the U.S, in cities such as Los Angeles the beverage fuses cuisines and international ingredients: you might see horchata, the almond- or rice-milk Latin American drink, infused in Chinese green tea, for instance. There are also bubble tea speakeasies and boba with soju, the Korean vodka-like alcohol. Some shops are using organic milks, specialty teas and a variety of house-made tapioca pearls.

In Waterloo Region, the culture of bubble tea is a relatively youthful one, often sought out by high school and university students. Shops might serve lights meals such as panini and bao as well as pastries. There’s a coffee shop ambiance that might include board games and late night conversation.

Clark says that they draw from all over the Waterloo Region and into Wellington County too. “We sometimes have little kids come in and order their own drinks. It’s the most popular place to come if you are in high school. We’re open until 2 a.m. And then there’s the university base which is humongous because we cater to Laurier, University of Waterloo, and Conestoga College students and (University of Guelph).”

It will be interesting to see how this beverage culture grows and evolves as the region’s food scene continues to do so.

Recipe: make your own bubble tea
If the bubble tea shop culture doesn’t seem to be for you, you can make your own at home. I’ve drawn and adapted this recipe from Linda Gaylard’s The Tea Book (Penguin Random House, 2015).

2 quarts water
5 ½ oz (150g) 5-minute tapioca pearls
1 cup sugar
7 oz (200g) taro root, peeled and chopped
Honey or sugar to taste
bowl of cold water

In a saucepan, bring water to a boil and add tapioca pearls. Simmer for 1 ½ minutes, until they rise to the surface and start to soften. Reduce heat, cover and continue to simmer for 5 minutes.

Remove the pearls with a slotted spoon and place in bowl of cold water. Boil the cup of sugar for 2 minutes. Cool and then soak the pearls in the sugar syrup for 15 minutes.

For the taro liquid, boil the taro in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes, or until soft. Remove from the heat and drain. Blend the taro adding water or milk to get a fluid, drinking consistency. Sweeten with honey or sugar. Pour the mixture into glasses and add ¼ of the prepared pearls to each glass. Enjoy

[ Image: Bubble tea via Wikimedia Commons ]
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