The first time I had bubble tea– I was in the backseat of my parent’s van, hot summer sun streaming through the windows as we drove down the I-95. Five-year-old me had stolen my brother’s bubble tea, jabbed the giant straw through the colorful plastic covering, and drank my fill of rich milk tea and tapioca before the intended recipient noticed and complained to our parents about the stolen drink. After an initial panic that I would choke on the tapioca, my parents soothed my brother with the promise to buy him another the next time we visited New York. Despite the scolding from my parents, I was delighted by my delicious discovery. This was the moment when I would irrevocably fall in love with bubble tea.
Originating in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea (also known as boba, pearl tea, tapioca tea, and zhēnzhū nǎichá, among other names) traditionally contains tapioca pearls, black tea, and sweetened condensed milk. Admittedly, in my early days as a bubble tea fanatic, I tried to recreate the drink in the comfort of my own kitchen only to end up with a mess of burnt brown sugar and tapioca powder. Since this spectacular failure, I’m now much more inclined to leave the bubble tea-making to the experts.
Indeed, since bubble tea was introduced to the US in the 90s, bubble chain shops have sprung up in Asian-American communities across the country. More recently, the beloved drink has since spread beyond the Asian community to be enjoyed by people of all cultures. I can hardly walk more than a block around campus without encountering a bubble tea shop! The rise in popularity of bubble tea as a global phenomenon has seen the drink become a symbol of Asian cultural identity.
With the explosion in demand, competing shops took to inventing increasingly creative flavors in addition to the traditional bubble tea. Flavored bubble tea is not a new phenomenon. In fact, fruity variations– such as strawberry, mango, and lychee– have existed since its creation. However, with new flavors such as oatmeal, creme brûlée, and matcha cheese, bubble tea traditionalists may fear that bubble tea is losing its authenticity.
While I concede that some of the new flavors of bubble tea are… interesting, to say the least, this newfound innovation has ensured that there’s a bubble tea for practically everyone. My close friend has never been a fan of the original bubble tea. When I took her to a bubble tea shop recently, she ordered a “strawberry latte” and convinced me to do the same. Although I was initially skeptical of the exotic flavor, I have to admit that the drink ended up being delicious and caught myself going back a week later to order another strawberry latte.
Apart from changing the flavor of the milk and tea base, the variation in toppings and ingredients makes for easy customization to individual preferences.
“Not a fan of the brown sugar? Try fruit syrup or matcha instead!
Don’t like the tapioca pearls? Swap them out for jellies or basil seeds!”
In this sense, this diversification of tea attracts a broader audience of bubble tea lovers to the industry than ever before.
My only complaint then has to be the exorbitant price of bubble tea nowadays. While originally advertised as an inexpensive treat, tea shops are now charging an average of around $5.84 per drink, with some creative flavors selling upwards of $8. The cruel irony then, after being dropped in the epicenter of bubble tea shops in NYC, is that I simply do not have the budget to satisfy my insatiable need.
In the coming weeks, as I continue my gradual crusade to try as many bubble tea shops as possible near campus, I hope to provide an updated review of the various locations. I’m sure all you bubble tea enthusiasts out there are curious as to which tea is the most delicious and worth its price!
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