It all boils down to the bubbles

Bubble tea is an overseas sensation, but it’s proving to be quite the hit in North America

Taro bubble tea is made from milk, tea, taro and tapioca pearls known as boba. The three tested teas were from (left to right) Mekong, Green Tray and Classics Tea Lounge.
Taro bubble tea is made from milk, tea, taro and tapioca pearls known as boba. The three tested teas were from (left to right) Mekong, Green Tray and Classics Tea Lounge.

With three downtown locations, it’s clear that Kingston is witnessing the rise of a student favourite. It isn’t a soda or a new gourmet coffee creation — it’s a quaint mix of juice, tea and sometimes milk.

Bubble tea began in 1980s Taiwan. When the world was indulging in Technicolour MTV, Taiwanese night markets — popular spots for cheap goods and snacks in the balmy late evenings of the island nation — were filled with pastel-coloured drinks.

This was the first incarnation of the bubble tea, a mix of fruit juice and tea with ice.

When Eric Wang, MIB ’13, left his home country of Taiwan at the age of 10, bubble tea was not yet a popular drink.

But when he returned in grade nine, he said the drink — named for the bubbles that form when the ingredients are shaken to mix — had become much more common.

“It was like Coke,” he said.

“The market’s pretty saturated with it.”

Eventually bubble tea, which sometimes featured small tapioca pearls called boba, made its way over to North American markets, especially where high populations of Asians resided. Wang’s first Canadian experience with bubble tea took place in Calgary’s Chinatown.

It’s the drink’s familiarity among Asians that’s helped make it popular in North America, he said.

In a 2004 talk on National Public Radio, University of California Berkeley professor Michael Pollan said North Americans’ immigrant history is part of the reason we’re so susceptible to food fads.

Pollan said North America lacks a stable food tradition because of the different groups that enter.

According to Wang, however, the North American experience is different than the Taiwanese experience.

“When I was with my Asian friends [in Calgary], we’d go to a bubble tea shop and order some food and sit,” he said. “In Taiwan, it’s more of a walkthrough … it’s casual.”

While the drink is incredibly popular in Taiwan, Wang said it’s not quite like the Starbucks or Tim Horton’s of Canada.

“There are a lot of different chains,” he said. “You can get it in convenience stores too.”

He said the night markets in Taiwan were conducive to the drink’s popularity.

“You do a lot of walking in Taipei [the capital of Taiwan],” he said. “You walk and drink instead of sitting in a tea shop to drink.”

Wang said his favourite flavour is taro, made from the root of the taro, a tropical plant

that’s native to Asia.

However, he said it’s the

tapioca that makes bubble tea so enjoyable.

“It’s more fun to drink.”

The Bubble Tea Review

Bubble tea is easy to find in Kingston — there are three stores within walking distance of campus that sell the drink. In an effort to find the best taro bubble tea, I set out to sample three of Kingston’s locations. I bought taro bubble tea with milk from Mekong, Classics Tea Lounge and Green Tray. Here are the results.

MEKONG - 394 Princess St.

Cost: $5.08 for 710 ml Tapioca consistency: Initially mushy, but had a melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Flavour: The taro flavour was subtle, but I enjoyed the understated taste. They only use green tea, so that might have added to the flavour.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

CLASSICS TEA LOUNGE - 399 Princess St.

Cost: $5.64 for 710 ml Tapioca consistency: Good pearl to tea ratio, but the tapioca had a strange aftertaste. It was almost as if they had absorbed the taro flavour too much.

Flavour: Appropriately sweet. It had a tarty consistency, making it obvious that the drink was made from a powder.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

GREEN TRAY - 461 Princess St.

Cost: $4.71 for 354 ml Tapioca consistency: Though there were many tapioca pearls in the drink, they had a sticky consistency and were more difficult to chew.

Flavour: This had the creamiest texture out of all three teas. It had a strong tea flavour, which could be diluted with milk. Rating: 3 out of 5

Janina Enrile

DIY Bubble Tea

The first time I tried to make bubble tea on my own, there was a mess of boiling water and a cloud of purple powder in my kitchen. Bubble tea comes in various flavors, so first purchase the flavoured powder of your choice. The flavouring and tapioca pearls can be found at most Asian grocery stores; Oriental Grocery at Princess and Division Streets stocks them. You can use the directions that appear on the flavour’s packaging but if you’re feeling creative you can also follow these instructions.

— Janina Enrile

1 packet bubble tea flavoured powder (can be purchased pre-packed in portions)
2 tbsp. condensed milk
3/4 cup water
1 cup ice
¼ cup of cooked bubble tea tapioca pearls

Large stock pot
Sugar syrup (½ cup sugar dissolved in ½ cup boiling water)
Drink shaker
Tall glass
Fat bubble tea straw (also found at Asian grocers)

Approximate preparation time: one hour and 15 minutes

1. Add 7 cups of water for every cup of tapioca pearl. The more water, the better.
2. Boil the water in a large stockpot.
3. Add pearls to the boiling water. Boil for 30 to 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, until they appear to be soft.
4. Turn off heat and let the tapioca pearls sit for 30 minutes with the cooking lid on. Then drain the pearls and rinse with cold water until the water runs clear.
5. Place pearls into desired container. Add sugar syrup solution to cover the tapioca pearls. Wait a few minutes for the pearls to absorb the sugar solution.
6. Your tapioca pearls are now ready to serve. They can stay in the fridge for several days.

1. Put all ingredients except tapioca into shaker and shake.
2. Make sure that the flavoured powder and creamer is mixed well.
3. Add tapioca pearls to a cup, and pour liquid mixture over them.
4. Put in your bubble tea straw and enjoy.,,

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