I still remember the very first time I had bubble tea — or tapioca tea, or pearl milk tea, or tapioca, or boba — whatever the heck you want to call it, I had it when I was 12 years old, in seventh grade at the Sweet House on Balboa in the mid-30s avenues in the Richmond district in San Francisco. I was working on a long-term science project with two of my friends, one of whom lived in the area. On the short walk from school to her house, she suggested we get tapioca drinks.
“What’s that?” I asked, confused.
“You’re going to love it – it’s so good!” she said. “It’s even addictive!”
So I got the one she recommended — the strawberry tapioca, and the worker behind the counter blended up a fresh, frothy strawberry drink for me and added these large, black tapioca balls to my drink. She stuck a huge straw into my drink and handed it over to me. I tasted it and chewed on the balls, and it was all over.
That began my love for bubble tea.
After a while, I stopped getting the smoothie-like fruit drinks and opted for the milk teas. On days when I wanted to be more indulgent, I’d get the taro or almond milk teas. Occasionally when the option existed, I’d mix in other jellies or puddings with the tapioca balls. The best taro milk teas were the drinks that had fresh blended taro root, which was hard to find. More and more places were using powder mixes as opposed to real tea to cut costs (and quality inevitably), so getting bubble tea was increasingly more annoying because it was hard to know the good places from the bad and cheap ones.
While researching our Taiwan trip, I came across an article talking about the supposed birth place of bubble tea — the teahouse Chun Shui Tang (literally meaning “spring water hall or court”) in Taichung, which was on our itinerary as a home base point to visit Sun Moon Lake.
The founder of Chun Shui Tang originally came up with the idea of serving Chinese tea cold in the early 1980s after visiting Japan, where he saw coffee served cold. Then, in 1988, his product development manager was sitting in a meeting when she randomly decided to pour her tapioca from her dessert into her Assam iced tea and drank it. Each person in the meeting had it and raved about it. And then it became a regular staple item that quickly grew up in popularity. To this day, it still makes up 80 to 90 percent of all Chun Shui Tang’s sales across all locations in Taiwan.
I had no idea about that history until this year, nor did I know the history of Assam tea and how it came from India to Taiwan. Apparently in a certain region of Taiwan, the climate and soil mimic that of India’s climate, so Assam tea is quite popular here and widely grown, and hence how it became combined with bubble tea. At pearl milk tea storefronts in Taichung and Sun Moon Lake, I read the signs in Chinese that gave so many options for what type of tea you’d like for your pearl milk tea, to then be mixed into fresh milk (they get that people are wary of powder mixes, as well). The options were so extensive, everything from Assam, pouchong, dong ding oolong, tie guan yin oolong, to just basic jasmine green.
And when we went to the original Chun Shui Tang (twice actually, because the first time I nearly had a melt down when we came 10 minutes after they were supposed to open, and the gate was closed and the sign said they were doing work inside. Someone must have heard my wailing because a worker came out to tell me that the work was temporary and they’d be open in just three hours. Thank God), we ordered a mango coconut smoothie with pearls, plus a standard Assam black milk tea with pearls. They took quite a while to make both, which was a clear sign that these were being brewed and made from scratch. And when they finally came, it was like heaven in a very tall and large glass: frothy and bubbly on the top with a luxurious and smooth mouthfeel. The tea was perfectly sweetened, not too much, and the richness of the milk was a great complement. Not only that, but the pearls themselves were much smaller than the ones we’re used to back home in the U.S. Chris found these to be better since they were less starchy, and thus he’d get full less quickly. The mango coconut smoothie wasn’t too thin or thick, and the coconut was just enough to not overwhelm the mango. Chris, who used to be a bubble tea skeptic, has gradually over time warmed up to it, and admitted this place was very, very good and worth coming to.
I don’t think my bubble tea adventures could have been any better or fuller than this. And to add to the greatness, they even gave me 15% off our order since we came on a weekday, even though I told them I was going to sit in, and the discount is usually for takeout orders. I love Taiwanese hospitality and kindness (and ingenuity with the bubble tea!).