Discovering Taiwan's Bubble Tea

by  Evelyn Kanter | Oct 6, 2014
Bubble tea in Taipei
Bubble tea in Taipei / insjoy/iStock

In Taiwan, where bubble tea was invented, making this beverage is much more complicated than simply adding tapioca pearls, sugar, and ice to a glass of tea. For an out-of-the-box travel excursion, take a class at the Chun Shui Tang Cultural Tea House in Taichung, a 90-minute drive outside of Taipei in central Taiwan, to learn the traditional way. You might be surprised to learn that the process is as precise and choreographed as a traditional hot tea ceremony.

First things first: Taiwanese bubble tea is traditionally made with freshly brewed Assam black tea and sugar syrup (not powder sugar), with black tapioca pearls (not white) and powdered milk (not liquid). It's shaken in a martini shaker, not stirred in a glass, to produce a foam head reminiscent of a properly poured glass of ale or stout.

The hands-on classes are held in the tea house inside the National Museum of Fine Arts, which houses an excellent collection of Western and Chinese art. The tea house also offers traditional classes for brewing and serving green and black hot teas. Angela Liu manages the classes and has an impressive bubble tea pedigree of her own: she’s the daughter of Liu Han-Chieh, the man generally regarded as the food’s creator, whose family operates more than 30 Chun Shui Tang Culture Tea House locations in the country. They have plans to expand the stores internationally in Asia and to open a bubble tea museum in Taichung.

If you don't quite have the time for an entire class, grabbing an order of the ever-popular drink is easy. Popular chains in Taipei, Taichung, and other cities in the country include ComeBuy, which also has several locations in the U.S.; 50 Lan (50嵐), one of the few locations that offer mini-boba these days; and 85°C (85度C), a popular cafe. You can also find bubble tea at independent stores, night markets, and cafes everywhere. Wherever you go, a cup will run you as little as 35NT ($1.15).

Before you step up to order, be prepared. Patrons are offered the opportunity at many stores to customize the amount of sugar and ice that goes into their drinks -- you can confirm you want the usual recipe, or ask for a little, half, or no sugar or ice. If you've already tried the traditional drink, the alternatives are nearly endless. You can spring for green tea, have your tea flavored with passionfruit or skip the milk. Beyond tapioca pearls, toppings include grass jelly, pudding, nata de coco, and (sweet) red or green beans. There are even caffeine-free options, like wintermelon tea.

As for Taichung, there’s a lot to see beyond bubble tea. It’s Taiwan’s third largest and oldest city and is perhaps most famous for its Confucius Temple. Many of his sayings are engraved in gold leaf or carved into the wooden doorways. The temple garden is a popular spot for meditating -- and you might need to, for mental strength, before negotiating the crowded and boisterous Fengjia Night Market, or to reflect after visiting the 921 Earthquake Museum, with artifacts and history of the 7.3 Richter scale tremor that rocked the island nation in 1999.

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