Bubble Tea: The True Essence of Taiwan

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In simple words, Bubble tea is iced tea; the only thing is, it is entirely different from the usual ice tea. If you search ‘Best food/dishes in Taiwan’ or ‘Most famous food/dishes in Taiwan’ on the Internet, one thing that will be common in every article is Bubble tea. In such a short duration, bubble tea has become very popular around the world. The Bubble tea industry is estimated to grow at USD 4.7 billion from the current USD 2 billion in the next 5-6 years. But how did it all begin, how did it become popular, why do people love it so much, and what makes it so special to Taiwan?

The Journey of Bubble tea

The 1940s

Chang Fan Shu created the first version of Bubble Tea in 1949. He opened a tea stall and made unique Shou Yao (hand-shaken) tea using a cocktail shaker which resulted in a silky and foamy texture with bubbles on the top. Since then, Shou Yao is considered an essential element of Bubble tea.

The 1980s

It was not until the 1980s when tea beverages entered the trending list. Taiwan’s economy experienced rapid growth at that time, which also boosted the food and beverage industry. There was a commendable rise in the number of tea shops in the suburbs. The bubble drink we enjoy today was created during this time.

The first glass ever!

I admire passionate people. Both Tu Tsong He and Lin Hsiu Hui claim the first glass of the Bubble tea. Some say that Tu made the first glass of the bubble tea in 1986 when he saw Tapioca pearls at a night market and decided to add them in his green tea. Others say that Lin made the first glass in 1988 when she added some Tapioca pearls in the tea just for fun which was loved by the co-employees.

Claiming the first glass is not bad, but what’s significant and worth embracing is the fact that both of them along with many tea lovers from Taiwan have successfully encrypted their cultural values in a glass of bubble tea and delivered it across the globe.

Why do people love it?

When I heard about Bubble tea for the first time, I was surprised to see its popularity. It is reasonable to be famous within a society, or a culture. But being popular in almost all major cities in the world made me curious. I just had one question in mind. Can someone please tell me why people are crazy about it. I asked my colleagues and looked it up on the internet, but I found nothing.

I was so curious that I finally decided to buy a glass of Bubble tea. It was then when I realised that I was investigating the wrong way all this time. The only way to understand why people love it is to drink it. It is so hard to convey those feelings using words. Let me share my experience.

On a hot summer day, when the sun was glaring at me, I decided to buy a glass of chilled Bubble tea to quench my thirst. I started feeling better as soon as I held the glass and began to move away from the counter. I took the first sip, that is actually when the magic happens because you are not ready for what is about to come. In my first sip, I experienced richness and silkiness in its texture. When I pushed it inside, I could feel the chills it was leaving while flowing down my throat until it reached my stomach. I didn’t even take a second sip till now, and my body was cooled down, my mouth was craving for another sip, and my mind was trying to register what just happened.

Another magic happened when a couple of Tapioca pearls came inside my mouth. I had already heard a lot about tapioca being the best part of bubble tea. As soon as I started chewing them, it felt different, and not in the wrong way. At that moment, I realised how it is very different from a mango milkshake. In my mango bubble tea, the flavours were so nicely integrated and harmonised that I could feel it while chewing Tapioca pearls.

Tapioca Pearls properly covered with sweetened syrup.

Now, I understand people’s love and craving for bubble tea. Though I  finished my glass in just 2 minutes, I was able to understand the journey of bubble tea from its making until getting consumed.

Bubble Tea: From a ‘Cool Thing’ to ‘the Face of Taiwan’

The Cool Thing

During the 90s, everyone was familiar with a drink called bubble tea, and almost everyone held one in their hand every day. In simple terms, ‘Bubble tea in Taiwan’ was like ‘Soda in America’. It was ‘The Thing’. Drinking bubble tea was a cool thing to do. Hanging out with friends, going on a date, writing a book, reading a book, celebrating birthdays, and so on. People drank it because they loved it. But some people would try it for the first time out of curiosity; some out of peer or societal pressure, because who doesn’t want to fit in.

As the economy of Taiwan was snowballing, people were earning more and were willing to spend even more on leisure. This multiplied the growth of bubble tea. Another reason for the growing popularity was the opening of tea shops near schools and universities, which allowed students to take a sip of bubble tea.

Trespassing the Global Boundaries

As bubble tea became a prime choice of every Taiwanese, it followed the footsteps of Taiwanese migrants and spread across east Asia at first. In the mid-1990s, studying and working abroad was widespread, and the first choice for every person in the world used to be America. As more people from Taiwan went to America, there was an increase in the number of Taiwanese restaurants. It didn’t take long for people to open a dedicated tea house to bubble tea.

The opening of the first Taiwanese tea house in LA brought international recognition to bubble tea. Since then, its popularity has continuously increased. It has so firmly established its place in American culture that in 2016, the then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came to the LA tea house while campaigning for elections to drink bubble tea especially.

Identity of Taiwan

Bubble tea is a successful example of recreating a traditional dish. Not many people are aware of the fact that when the new version of Bubble tea was created in the 1980s, it reflected the mood of Taiwan in that era, that is, the feeling that the society is transitioning from old to new. It has acted as a bridge of nostalgia, between the traditional cultural experiences and the modern world.

The Bubble Tea Culture

Since the last 25 years, Bubble tea has spread around the world like a wildfire. In this process, Taiwan has successfully transformed its identity for the rest of the world. Being born in Taiwan, the growing popularity of Bubble tea in every major city of the world has left everyone speechless.

Despite Taiwan being regarded as a small island, such a brilliant creation has made all the Taiwanese proud. They have proved to the world that being small in size is not a hindrance; nothing can stop them from creating a huge wave. To cherish this delicacy, Taiwan celebrates the National Bubble Tea day on 30th April.

Finally,

Bubble tea, for sure, mirrors the true essence of Taiwan. In simple words, it has successfully symbolised Taiwan’s self-confidence and identity. Especially in the last 15 years, with the rise of Internet, globalisation, and the whole world becoming a much smaller village over time, Boba culture, along with support from global communities, has cast a revolutionary impact on the Taiwanese people. The voice of the people can now be heard in a much-harmonized manner by everyone, similar to the flavour bubble tea leaves behind.

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