Love it or hate it, you can’t escape it. In Taiwan, it’s always tea time. Tea, green, black or oolong, is the first thing served at restaurants without your even asking for it. If you ask, then your cup is filled (and refilled) to the brim. Tea houses and stores selling home-grown varieties and tea art (teaware and gear) dot street corners. “Our culture is immersed in tea. It’s an Asian thing, you see,” said a local.
The island’s tea culture can be traced back to China, and the roots of tea cultivation to the Wuyi Mountains of the Fujian province. Tea trees from these mountains were uprooted and planted in the northern regions of Taiwan. With its climate and geography conducive to growing tea, Taiwan soon emerged as the producer of some of the best teas in the world. Green tea, black tea, and oolong are the three main types cultivated here. However, Taiwan’s claim to fame among tea aficionados is its bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea. This cold milk- or fruit-based tea, shaken with small, chewy tapioca balls, is a hit among South East Asians, Canadians and Americans.
Bubble tea, or boba, is neither green nor black, but a shade of brown (beige to be precise). This was a bonus for a person like me who loves tea in tawny brown — nothing more, nothing less. We set out to trace its origin and relish its authentic flavour.
Taiwan’s High Speed Rail No. 0813 from Taipei cut our travel time to Taichung, the place where bubble tea was invented, by more than half. Taichung, the third-largest city on the island, wore the usual vibrancy of a business hub.
Stepping into the famous Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, we were welcomed by a line-up of traditional tea sets, interspersed with cute little figurines. It was a little before lunch time and the empty tables waited to be occupied by guests. The Chinese interior with a dash of red here and there, the rays of the sun gleaming on polished wooden pillars and the fresh aroma of tea wafting by… it was a warm welcome.
The DIY Bubble Tea workshop was to begin soon. The secret behind their signature dish was to be passed on, with no hesitation. An interesting set of tools and ingredients were kept ready, some of which were the least expected at a tea-making ceremony. Plastic cocktail shaker, ice bucket, tongs, sugarcane syrup, a fat straw, and jelly tapioca balls, for instance.
A young culinary expert outlined the history behind tea before teaching the art of brewing it. Though tea drinking is part of everyday activity in Taiwanese households, back in the 1980s, youngsters started losing interest in it. Tea was had only by adults and the elderly.
It was also a time when the founder of Chun Shui Tang Teahouse, Liu Han Chieh, wanted to introduce cold tea to the menu, drawing inspiration from Japan’s cold coffee. And bubble tea came about as an accidental discovery when, in 1987, his product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, dropped tapioca balls into her iced tea, for fun. The amazing drink went down well with youngsters too. Today, it is served in most teahouses in Taiwan. The beverage also lent itself to experimentation and there are plenty of flavours for tea lovers to choose from. “The best bubble tea brewer is one who shakes the mixture of tea decoction, milk powder, ice cubes, sugarcane syrup and boiled tapioca balls, really well,” our tutor said.
We were impressed with the way the drink turned out. The tall glass of bubble tea with foam on top, and bubbles gleaming at the bottom was ready to be savoured through a big fat straw. Sipping tea and slurping black bubbles, we let the chillness and flavour spread through our mouth till it reached our very soul. The chewy bubbles that played hide and seek with our tongue and teeth were crushed and swallowed, much to our child-like satisfaction.
By the time we left, it was lunch time. The teahouse was packed with youngsters bonding over a cuppa, sipping, slurping and chewing.
The writer was in Taiwan at the invitation of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of China.