I vividly remember my first bubble tea. Probably because it startled me so much I almost got run over by a busload of badly-dressed tourists. After all, when you’re handed a glass, you don’t expect to have to chew. As I walked through a Hong Kong street, I bought the drink from a brightly-coloured stall, and took a sip through the large straw. Suddenly, my mouth was filled with chilled milky tea, and sweet, chewy tapioca spheres. Astonished, I pried open the container’s cover to investigate what exactly went into this strange semi-edible drink.
For those of you who haven’t tried bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea or boba milk tea, here’s a quick primer. It’s commonly believed to have originated in the tea shops of Taichung, Taiwan in the 1980s. Traditional versions consist of a tea base, which is then mixed with fruit or milk. The ‘pearls’ are chewy tapioca balls called ‘boba.’ Though they now come in all shapes and flavours, from fruit boba that explode in your mouth to multi-coloured jelly cubes.
Surprisingly, despite their undeniable appeal (after all who can resist bright drinks that pop like a Tina Turner video) and Asian roots, bubble tea is still not common in India. So I’m delighted when I stumble upon Cha Republic at Phoenix Market City, Velachery, run by a charming woman from Malaysia. As we collapse on their sofas, she guides us though the menu. Playing safe, I order traditional pearl milk tea, which is refreshingly cold and light, filled with dark glutinous tapioca boba. I bully my friend into choosing something more adventurous, so he picks the pineapple tea, filled with exploding mango boba. It’s bright orange and frightfully sweet — but he seems to enjoy it. Especially teamed with a fluffy coffee bun, which is a plain bun subtly laced with the flavour of coffee. It’s admittedly bland so I prefer the unusual kaya puffs, fresh and flaky, filled with sticky coconut jam. For people who like to experiment there’s plenty more: grass jelly, coffee jelly and even drinks piled high with oreo cookies.
For something less decadent, try the vegetable blend from Ganesh Krishnan and Sowmya Ganesh’s newly launched ‘Dabble With Smoothies’. I bump into the couple at Score Fitness in Alwarpet, where Ganesh tells me how he left a career in IT to dive into the smoothie business, realising that there’s a niche in Chennai for healthy drinks. The couple started to experiment with different combinations and blenders to come up with a product they were satisfied with. “With juices, the pulp is discarded, and so vital fibre is lost,” says Ganesh, adding, “With our smoothies we pulp the entire fruit, and then add nuts, seeds and dates. They also put in some unexpected ingredients — oats, psyllium husk and whey protein. One particularly good idea is a smoothie using tender coconut.
The drink I try, which has a satisfyingly velvety texture and subtle sweetness, is a blend of banana, guava, apple, milk and coconut. In this age of hip ‘green smoothies,’ they include one made with spinach, mint, banana and grapes. Clients can opt for soy, rice, almond and coconut milk, instead of regular dairy, which is a nice touch, expanding options considerably.
Right now, they drop off their smoothies at seven gyms in and around Alwarpet, and you need to sign up for a month. But in a week or so they will open their first outlet in Alwarpet, selling individual smoothies for Rs. 100 each. Call 98403 10312 for details.
Cha Republic is on the ground floor of Phoenix Market City. Two drinks with food costs about Rs. 300 for two. Call 97909 78431 for details.