Bubble tea, also called pearl tea (珍珠奶茶), is a quintessentially Taiwanese drink, but how old is the chewy tapioca ball-filled beverage, who invented it and how did it become to be so popular?
The origins of bubble tea are steeped in mystery and still hotly debated, but according to the orthodox version of events, the story begins in 1980s Taiwan.
At the time something called “bubble tea” — quite different from the drink we know today — was all the rage. Made with either black tea or green tea, brewed tea was sweetened with sugar syrup and then shaken through ice in a cocktail shaker to both chill the tea and produce a copious amount of bubbly froth at the top of the glass, similar to a “head” on a freshly poured pint of beer. The shaking was initially done by hand, but later machines were developed to automatically agitate the tea mixture.
Photo: Yang Ya-min, Taipei Times
At some point, chewy tapioca balls (粉圓) were added to bubble tea, resulting in pearl milk tea, the familiar drink we know today. Two rival Taiwanese teahouse chains — Hanlin Tea Room (翰林茶館) in Tainan and Chun Shui Tang (春水堂人文茶館) in Taichung — lay claim to conceiving the bubbly beverage.
DISPUTE OVER ORIGINS
Hanlin Tea Room insists it came up with the idea in 1986 when its founder Tu Tsung-ho (?宗和) spotted white-colored tapioca balls on sale at Tainan’s Yamuliao market. Tu had a sudden flash of inspiration and bought some of the balls home, and after cooking them through, added them to some milk tea. He found the texture pleasing and soon christened the new beverage pearl milk tea on account of the pearly, semi-translucent white tapioca balls. To this day, customers at any branch of Hanlin Tea Room can choose between either the original white tapioca balls or the more common black variety, made with brown sugar.
Photo Courtesy of Cha Cha The
However, Chun Shui Tang maintains it is the true inventor of the beverage, which it says was created by a then-20-year-old female employee, Lin Hsiu-hui (林秀慧), the following year in 1987. One day at the teahouse, Lin experimented by mixing her favorite childhood snack, tapioca balls, with iced milk tea and also lemon black tea to produce what the company claims was the world’s first cup of pearl milk tea.
The two companies became locked in a bitter dispute, filing lawsuits against each other and eventually going to court to settle the matter. However, since neither one was able to successfully patent or trademark their product, by the mid-1990s, pearl milk tea featured on the menus of Taiwan’s teahouses, which were popular hangouts for students and businessmen to relax and chew the cud in the days before the influx of coffee shops. With the introduction from abroad of machines that automatically seal the top of takeaway cups with a thin film of plastic, the modern takeaway version of the beverage was born.
However, there is an intriguing alternative explanation: bubble tea’s earliest incarnation could in fact be traced back to the days of the British empire. In British Malaya (modern-day Singapore and Malaysia) an iced drink/desert, usually called cendol or chendol, began to be drunk to provide respite from the tropical heat.
Brightly-colored, worm-like gelatinous strands, usually made from rice flour or sago, are added to coconut milk which has been sweetened with sugar and combined with ice to make a refreshing drink or iced snack. It is thought that cendol may have been inspired by locals observing British expatriates adding milk to their tea and may have originated in port cities such as Malacca or Penang, where refrigeration technology from British ships would have provided the ice. Today, Cendol is a ubiquitous thirst-quencher drunk across South East Asia, including Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia and when served in a tall glass, bears an uncanny resemblance to Taiwan’s bubble tea.
Meanwhile, chewy tapioca balls, called fenyuan in Chinese, somehow made their way to Taiwan from abroad — possibly via China, after being presented to Empress Dowager Cixi (慈禧太后) as tribute — and began to be used as an ingredient in sweet snacks at Taiwanese night markets. Contrary to the competing claims of the teahouses, perhaps the real origin of bubble tea is to be found in Taiwan’s night markets, possibly inspired by a Taiwanese night market vendor sipping on a glass of cendol during a trip to Singapore or Malaysia.
Whatever the true origin of bubble tea, today takeaway tea shops abound on almost every street corner and rival chains fiercely compete for business, continually innovating wacky new flavor combinations and textures to keep customers coming back for more. In recent years, Taiwan’s quasi-national beverage has successfully seen off the coffee juggernaut as well as multiple food safety scares and looks set to stay a permanent fixture of Taiwan’s culinary scene for many years to come.
In Taiwan’s rural lowlands, it’s a common sight at this time of year. Having cleared and plowed their fields, farmers intending to grow pineapples, strawberries or certain other crops, roll lengths of thin black plastic across the ground. To keep the film in place, soil is piled over the edges. Plastic sheeting — or plastic mulch, as it’s often called — makes farmers’ lives easier by suppressing unwanted foliage that might otherwise crowd out their crops. As an inexpensive labor-saving technique, its appeal is obvious. Taiwan’s farmers are getting old (in 2014, their mean age was 62 years), and finding
Foreign viewers at the Cannes premiere of Moneyboys (金錢男孩) may not have noticed the glaring incongruities that persist through the movie, but Taiwanese viewers certainly will. They’re apparent to the point that it’s difficult to enjoy the movie. First of all, the entire film is obviously shot in Taiwan, but the plot is set in fictional locales in southern China, with most secondary characters, passersby and television announcers speaking in Beijing-accented Mandarin. This melancholy tale revolves around gay sex workers in China and the unique challenges they face, especially regarding traditional expectations, including marriage, and the large-scale rural-to-urban migration of
In our neoliberal, corporate capitalist world, things fall into just two categories, the useful and the discarded. Useful things are exploited until used up, then moved to the other category and forgotten. In Taiwan, that includes children. Last week the Social Work Department with the Taiwan Fund for Children and Families (TFCF) sounded an alert: the nation’s young are being eaten alive. Suicide and suicidal thoughts among teenagers are spiking. According to a survey of over 600 young people by the charity, a fifth had thought of suicide. The charity pointed out that the number of reported suicides and suicide attempts
My goals were straightforward. I’d ride my motorcycle from my home in Tainan along back-country roads into Kaohsiung’s Tianliao (田寮) and Cishan (旗山) districts, then loop back through Yanchao (燕巢). I had a short list of places I wanted to visit along the way, and I was confident I’d stumble across a few more points of interest. Turning off Provincial Highway 19A (19甲), I veered northeast on Tainan Local Road 163 (南163) until I saw a sign for Daping (大坪). Like 163, this second (and apparently unnumbered) road turned out to be a gently undulating rural delight. I passed a few