Six years ago at the tender age 24, I took my first trip out of the United States. Granted, it was only a trip up to Steph’s hometown of Toronto, Canada, but it was my first stamp in my first passport. Turns out, it was a trip of many firsts, as that was also when I had my very first bubble tea. Before I left for Toronto, Steph had told me about this drink she used to get when she was in university from a shop called Bubble Tease (how much do you want to bet that it was the pun that first got her through the door?): a sweet tea-based concoction that came in lots of different flavors—from lychee to green apple—and had tapioca pearls (or jellies, or both!) at the bottom. I’d never heard of it, but was game to give it a shot.
After one cup I was hooked.
Unfortunately for me, bubble tea hadn’t made it to Nashville at that time, so my opportunities to enjoy it were few and far between for the next several years. Perhaps one of the biggest signs of Nashville’s progress is that it did eventually get a shop, but little did I know that this was the minor league of bubble tea. So, when I finally found myself stepping off a plane in Taiwan, the birthplace of bubble tea, I had no real idea what I was in for.
Now, I had found bubble tea in various other countries up to this point: Japan had it, China had it, and it had even been making the rounds in the US for a few years. But here I was, in the country where it all began, and it was time to put my game face on. I immediately set myself a challenge: I would drink (at least) one bubble tea every day for the duration of our stay. To stay a little flexible and allow for circumstances beyond my control, I was permitted to have a make-up cup if, for some reason, I couldn’t get my fix on any given day.
There wasn’t anything actually at stake with this challenge—I didn’t lose a bet or anything like that. I just really, really like bubble tea and wanted to have an excuse to try as much of it as possible while we were in Taiwan without Steph calling me a glutton. Hey, she created this monster, she can live with the repercussions!
Bubble tea is still fairly new, as far as things involving tea are concerned, but in the last 25 or so years of its existence, it’s made quite a splash world-wide and now exists, in many forms, nearly anywhere you care to find it, but nowhere is it so prevalent as in Taiwan. A relatively young drink, I was surprised to discover that bubble tea’s exact origin is somewhat of a mystery in its homeland: some sources claim it comes from Tainan, or possibly Taichung, but there is no clear verdict. What is known is that it started as a simple mixture of black tea, condensed milk, sweetener, ice and tapioca pearls (also known as “bubbles” or “boba”); the brew is consumed through a comically large straw, whose extra girth accommodates the pearls. That’s still the basic formula, though these days the milk can be replaced by fruit juice and the pearls can come with fruit jelly or other chewy tidbits – or can even be omitted altogether by those who don’t like their drinks to eat like a meal.
In any case, I took to the challenge with gusto. In fact, after hearing about my foolishness, a friend in Taipei was kind enough to take us to the first shop in the city to offer bubble tea. This shop is not only the flagship bubble tea purveyor in Taipei, but it is part of the chain that originally (and possibly apocryphally) developed the drink to begin with.
Over the course of 18 days, I drank bubble teas up and down the west and east coasts of the country, slaking my thirst wherever I could; if I saw a tea shop that looked good, I went for it.
I’m happy to say that my dedication paid off. I completed my challenge, and then some, with delicious results: I managed to consume 21 bubble teas… and probably knocked 2 years off my life.
If you’ve never had bubble tea before (or even if you have, but not in Taiwan… remember, it’s a whole new ballgame over there!) I’ll give you a few pro tips:
- If you’ve never tried it, start with milk tea. It’s the ground floor and the original. The flavor is nice, generally mellow and you avoid the occasional artificial fruit flavoring problem that can be a big turn-off. Also, if you’re not thinking about the flavor too much it makes it easier to decide where you fall on the tapioca pearl issue. This seems to be love or hate for most; I guess it’s a texture thing. I think they’re fun, personally. Branch out from there to wherever your heart takes you.
- Do try the other types of “bubbles.” QQ is lovely if you like a hit of citrus. Fruit jellies are chewy and tasty, and if you find coconut jelly you’re in for a treat.
- Just stab that straw right through the plastic seal on the cup, the straw is pointy on one end for a reason. Plus, it’s good fun and extremely satisfying to hear that “pop”. By this point, I’m classically conditioned, and just the sound gets my mouth watering…
- Not all tea drinks come with bubbles by default, sometimes you have to add them – for a nominal fee.
- I like my tea with 70% sugar and no ice. The sugar level is up to you (and most good tea shops in Taiwan will ask and have a little chart you can point to) but I think no ice is a good call. Inevitably, you will run out of drink before the ice melts, and if the tea shop was good they gave you lots of pearls… which are now trapped in your un-melted ice and very hard to get with your giant, pointy straw. No ice means they still use ice in the shaker to cool the tea, but don’t put it in your cup. You might get a cup that isn’t full, but it’s the same amount of tea either way.
- Sour plum is disgusting. It is not what it sounds like and you will not like it… unless you like salty drinks.
For those of you who don’t have the stamina or the interest in personally taste-testing every tea in Taiwan to discover the best, here’s the fruits of my labor: when it came to deciding the best bubble tea, the original in Taipei was pretty great—it even had the rare small bubbles!—but for my money Tainan knocked it out of the park. A small shop called Foxtail Tea served up what was, by a wide margin, the best bubble tea either of us has ever had, and also some of the cheapest to boot. If you’re ever there, try the white gourd tea or the almond & taro; they were a revelation!