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What’s all the fuss about bubble tea?

Jo Romero
Jo Romero
13 November 2012
Winter warmers that won’t have you piling on the pounds
Winter warmers that won’t have you piling on the pounds

Bubble tea is the latest drinks craze, but what exactly is it and is there a permanent place for it in the UK?

What is bubble tea?
Bubble tea, or 'boba' tea, as it's also known, is a milky iced tea (black tea and green tea are both popular flavours), with small, chewy balls of tapioca (called tapioca 'pearls') dropped into the cup. You then suck up the refreshing, cold tea (along with the tapioca pearls) through a wide, plastic straw. We asked Nung Arnold Lin, manager of Milk Tea and Pearl in London about the origins of bubble tea: 'I remember when I was a boy there was a year when bubble tea became overwhelmingly popular all of a sudden,' he told us. Apparently, bubble tea was invented when a dessert shop wanted to avoid waste. 'They put left-over tapioca balls (usually used in sweet dessert soups) into iced milk teas at the end of the day to serve customers', Nung said. 'And customers loved it!'. Since the 1980s, bubble tea has become a hit not only in Taiwan but in countries all over the world.

The bubble tea craze in the UK
We Brits might think that we're fairly hip, cosmopolitan types, but according to Nung, we've caught on to the bubble tea craze a bit later than other countries. 'London is just getting to know about bubble tea,' he said, 'a little bit slow behind, comparing to the other countries.' As a comparison, Nung told us that in Australia, bubble tea shops outnumber coffee shops eight to one, and McDonald's sold bubble tea in all their German restaurants for a limited time last summer. So why have we taken so long? Nung thinks the weather could be a factor - it's hot and humid in Taiwan and instead of eating a heavy lunch, people there will often buy a cold, refreshing bubble tea to keep them going as a snack. Here in the UK, it's colder and wetter and up until now, we've been more likely to crave a hot chocolate with all the toppings. But better late than never, and bubble tea is now served not only in London but also in cities such as Oxford, York, Leicester and Glasgow.

So how authentic is British bubble tea?
Online reviews of UK bubble tea shops are mixed. Some say that the bubble tea they've had just wasn't like proper, authentic Taiwanese bubble tea. Others have raved about how comforting they've found it and how it reminds them of home. Nung reassures us. 'When I started the idea of opening a bubble tea shop in London several years ago, I wanted to bring the exact Taiwanese taste to London. To do that, I went to work as an apprentice in one of the most traditional shops to learn all the skills.' He also told us he visited shops in California, New York and Paris to see how customers there liked their bubble tea. The best thing to do is check reviews and recommendations, but authentic Taiwanese bubble tea is definitely out there, if you look.

Bubble tea: will the craze last, or is it just flash in the pan?
Drinking (and eating) bubble tea is fun. It's kind of a meal in a drink: the tapioca pearls are chewy and filling while the tea is refreshing and sweet. But will we eventually get bored of it and go back to our hot chocolates instead? Nung thinks that although we don't have the perfect climate all year round for enjoying cold drinks, bubble tea could still really take off as it has in Australia or in the US. 'Traditional habits will remain,' he said, 'people will still have coffee in the morning, beer after work - but I believe there will be a place for bubble tea somewhere in the afternoon or during weekend shopping.'

Have you tried bubble tea? What did you think of it, and do you think the bubble tea craze will last?

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