Bubble tea in Taichung
It was hot and humid in the streets of Taichung, but the air conditioning in Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House cooled me. On the second floor, there was a table laid with silver teapots, whisks, shakers, measuring cups, ice- cube containers, a bowl of syrup, glasses, tapioca pearls, and oversized straws: all the tools for making bubble tea. I had come here to learn how to make the famous Taiwanese drink at its birthplace.
Our instructor, Chiang, was a 20-something brunette. “Thirty years ago, nobody drank iced tea,” she said. “Hot tea was the signature drink in Taiwan, made in a tea pot, and served in small cups.” In 1983, Chun Shui Tang’s owner went to Japan and discovered iced coffee, mixed with a shaker. He started serving Chinese tea cold using the same method.
Chiang filled the shaker with ice and added syrup. In the beginning, the iced tea was made by shaking strong tea and syrup together, resulting in a foamy, bubbly tea, served in a glass with a straw. They named it boba, which in Chinese means both “bubbles” and “big.”
After the history lesson, it was time to make my own boba. Following Chiang’s instructions, I started by mixing tea and powdered milk in a cup, stirring in one direction to create air bubbles on top. I added the milk-tea mixture to the shaker filled with ice and syrup. Shaking the boba can be tricky: you have to put one hand on top of the shaker, then the other on its body, and keep shaking it at a 45-degree angle. “The faster you shake, the better,” Chiang said. It’s ready when an ice coating forms on the outside.
To finish, I added two tablespoons of cooked tapioca pearls and stirred. It wasn’t until 1987 that tapioca pearls—a common dessert ingredient in Asia—were added to the drink. One of the teahouse’s employees put some in her tea for fun during a staff meeting. The result was so popular with the rest of the staff they decided to sell it to customers, and the rest is history.
With my oversized straw, I tasted the tea, milk, and bubbles. I would have preferred it less sweet, but perhaps the sweetness is part of its charm, along with the large pearls and ice cubes. Drinking boba is a pleasingly visual and tactile experience: you can see the pearls in the glass, and it’s a drink that you not only sip, but chew.