The Ultimate Taiwan Bubble Tea Challenge

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...

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!

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23 comments Leave a comment

  1. LOVE this! Glad to hear someone else enjoys pearl milk tea even more than I do!! We still haven’t made it to the original in Taipei, but when we first arrived I drank one nearly everyday. Then I found out how bad they are for you and switched over to fresh grapefruit green tea….one of the things I’m going to miss most about Taiwan! Just be careful if you make it back here and keep drinking them- I once heard a girl sucked up a cockroach instead of a tapioca ball 😉

    Jul. 26 2013 @ 6:53 am
    1. Casey @ A Cruising Couple author

      Yeah, I’ve read about the health concerns, but other than when I was actually in Taiwan I don’t drink them all that often… though I am sure I took some days off my life with my challenge! Don’t know about the cockroach story, Taiwan always seemed to be too hygienic for that kind of foolishness, but I guess cockroaches can really get just about anywhere!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:25 am
  2. I was the same way when I first tried it. Then I had to get more when we visited Taiwan. I feel like they get it right there. Have you tried the one with pudding yet? It’s amazing. =)

    Have you tried honey milk tea? it’s the beez-neez.

    Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:05 am
    1. nicole author

      Oh god, the pudding! I forgot all about it. Yes, I love the pudding, naturally. I’m sure I’ve tried honey milk tea, I think there isn’t much in the way of bubble tea left for me out there, not that I would ever get tired of it!

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:26 am
  3. Every day?! You are committed! I confess to only having had one or two bubble teas in my time…I’m more of a coffee or beer fan myself.

    Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:35 am
    1. Gillian @GlobalBookshelf author

      I’m not a big fan of bitter drinks and foods myself, though I do enjoy a nice, cold beer. Like I said, it seems like bubble tea either lights a fire, or is a miss, not too many people are ambivalent.

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:06 am
  4. I remember very well your ‘addiction’ to bubble tea and I’m happy you completed your challenge!
    We tried various kind of bubble teas which we enjoyed a lot (probably not as much as you though) but we’ve never had white gourd tea or the almond & taro kind, what a shame they sounds exactly what I would go for. Next time! 🙂

    Jul. 26 2013 @ 9:52 am
    1. Franca author

      Well, we all need to dream, right? One day the four of us will have to make it back to Taiwan together and see if we can get into some more trouble, and maybe you can get a chance to try some of the weird teas! 😉

      Jul. 26 2013 @ 10:19 am
  5. Fun post!! I discovered bubble tea my freshman year of college as there are an absurd amount of bubble tea shops in Berkeley (probably because of the large population of Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants). I am craving it now!!!

    Jul. 26 2013 @ 3:28 pm
    1. Amanda author

      Lucky you that you had bubble tea available! It really does get in your bones, I’ll love it forever, no matter what. That’s probably a result of all those harmful chemicals they put in it…

      Jul. 29 2013 @ 10:26 am
  6. Simon Noble

    Still waiting for bubble tea to hit Pai, though in Pai time that may be a while. Off to Chiang mai in a week, might find it in the cool part of town methinks. Is there such a thing as Irish bubble tea? My sisters would say it was blasphemy!

    Jul. 26 2013 @ 8:05 pm
    1. Simon Noble author

      I imagine Chiang Mai would have it, I’d be surprised if they didn’t, actually. I was a little surprised Pai didn’t have it, it’s so trendy and all, and Pai seems like a place that would appreciate it. Irish bubble tea? I imagine it would involve Guinness, no? That could be good, if you played it right…

      Jul. 29 2013 @ 10:28 am
  7. Hahaha – I love this challenge! Well done Tony! I love bubble tea…and I have to admit, I tried the sour plum in Japan and I actually liked it (shhhhh!)

    Jul. 27 2013 @ 2:35 pm
    1. Rika | Cubicle Throwdown author

      Thanks! Not that it was hard, just drinking 😉 You liked sour plum? Well,stranger things have happened. I guess there must be enough people who like it since they keep selling it. Maybe I’m the weirdo?

      Jul. 29 2013 @ 10:32 am
  8. You know I’m going to love a post/challenge like this. Congratulations on reaching your bubble tea goal. I feel like you deserve a certificate or something. Tell Steph to get one printed up for you. I appreciate the tip on sour plum. That sounds good to me so I could have been in danger of ordering it.

    I just read the comment below about health concerns… so now I’m off to Google that.

    Jul. 27 2013 @ 10:21 pm
    1. Jill author

      I’ll let Steph know the word has come down, I’m sure she’ll get right on it! 🙂 Like I told Rika, maybe I am the odd one out and sour plum is actually great, but all I can say is, well, it’s salty and it supposed to be salty. Eeugh. Have fun Googleing (Googling?), but don’t go too far down the rabbit hole. I think as long as you don’t drink it every day (whoops) and don’t drink a cockroach, you’ll be okay.

      Jul. 29 2013 @ 10:38 am
  9. I dont think I have ever seen bubble tea being served here in India. It looks quite interesting, must try it out sometime!!

    Jul. 28 2013 @ 12:20 am
    1. Arti author

      Wow, maybe India is the one place it hasn’t made it yet. Yet. Good luck on your quest! It will be interesting, though I won’t promise specific results… but I hope you like it!

      Jul. 29 2013 @ 10:41 am
  10. Oh man I really don’t like bubble tea! We tried it a few times in China, even tried it at McDonalds on the first day we arrived but there is just something about it that I really don’t like. But, because you love it so much, I will try it once more. When I find another bubble tea place, I’ll order a good one and let you know!
    I have to say I’m impressed that you managed to drink 21 bubble teas!

    Jul. 28 2013 @ 1:26 pm
    1. Angela author

      It’s okay if you don’t like it, it’s not for everyone (though CoCo in China did a pretty good job with bubble tea). Hopefully you’ll find the tea that does it for you, but if not, I stand by my assertion: love or hate. Which is fine, more for me either way!

      Jul. 29 2013 @ 10:44 am
  11. I recently had my first bubble tea in a cinema here in Phnom Penh. I am hooked now. Love these teas!

    Aug. 2 2013 @ 12:57 am
  12. I love this. I have never given myself a challenge, but when I am some place like Bangkok I do get super disappointed in myself if at the end of the day I have not had a bubble tea! there is just something about it that I love. The tapioca? The variety? That it is cold on a hot day? Watching the little machine put the plastic top on the cup. Who knows???

    Aug. 2 2013 @ 1:51 am

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