The Essential Fuel for Evenings in Taiwan
Boba in Taipei
Evening is descending on Ximending, and the food hawkers jostle for position, their pushcarts lined up along the curb. Each one is peddling a single kind of snack, made fresh before your eyes.
There are hot Yiling onion pies, the size of a child’s palm, golden crisp and sizzling on the grill. There’s stinky tofu, deep-fried and topped with pickled veg, its distinctive pungent funk attracting some and repelling others. The green scallion pancakes, cong zhua bing, large and flat and folded several times, come plain or with fillings.
Ximending, in Taipei’s Wanhua district, is vibrant with youth. Students flock here, their glowing faces bathed in pink neon. Music blares out of shops, and fashion stores stand cheek-to-jowl with massage parlors, the services and prices written on the window in red script. Two fat cats mind a suit shop in Wuchang Street, dispassionately observing customers and passersby. A large banner on Hanzhong Street reads “Taiwan Independence–NOT Chinese Taipei.” Teenagers are pinging off the edges of the alleys, zigzagging back and forth in a flood of frenetic energy, fueled by chewy, sugary tea and juice drinks.
The kids in Taiwan have been slurping and chewing boba tea (also called bubble tea, tapioca tea, pearl milk tea, or 珍珠奶茶 in Taiwanese) for a few decades. It first emerged in the 1980s, probably in Taichung or Tainan, and has been a staple drink ever since.
Even though it started out simple, with black tea, sweetened condensed milk, and a dose of small tapioca pearls, boba tea now comes in a dizzying variety of flavors and incarnations: fruit flavors or coffee; personalized levels of sugar and ice; large tapioca pearls or small, or grass jelly, sago, coconut jelly, or chia seeds instead.
My jam is taro milk tea with large black tapioca pearls, the lavender mixture thick and slightly chalky with tuber starch. I place my order with an efficient, friendly cashier (half sugar, little ice) and then melt into the crowd of people also waiting for their hit. She scoops a ladleful of pearls into my drink, then runs the cup through a machine that seals it with a plastic film festooned with colorful cartoon characters. She flips it upside down once to check the seal, then hands it to me.