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Looking for tea in bubble tea

The drink can be disappointing. Have the best version, though, and you may well be converted

Bubble tea is said to have originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. (iStock)
Bubble tea is said to have originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. (iStock)

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"You must have this,” insisted my host in Aizawl, Mizoram, handing me a glass of fruity, ice-cold bubble tea. It was milky, sugary and tasted synthetic. Is it a milkshake with bubbles that pop in the mouth? Or, an iced tea with chewy, tapioca pearls and extra sugar? A drink with the word tea in its name but zero taste of the ingredient felt like a sham. The year was 2019, and I have stayed away from bubble tea since then. Cut to 2023, though, and things have changed.

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Two weeks ago, on a trip to Singapore, several well-meaning friends suggested trying it. As an intrepid foodie who eats everything once, it’s difficult to say no, despite unsavoury experiences in the past. KOI Thé, a bubble tea brand, was the most recommended. Their menu has a list of drinks brewed with tea leaves, mixed with chocolate and blitzed with fruit flavours. One can customise the drink by choosing the preferred quantity of sugar, on a scale from 0-120%, and decide the amount of ice with options like little ice, less ice and normal ice. There are a variety of toppings, from golden bubble and coffee jelly to aloe vera. I ordered one of their best-sellers, guava green tea, and wasn’t impressed.

By now, I needed to understand the big deal about bubble tea. It’s believed the drink originated at a teashop in Taiwan in the 1980s and gained worldwide fame due to the Asian diaspora. The chewy tapioca pearls, boba, are an essential ingredient and they get their deep brown colour from brown sugar and honey. A classic recipe has tea, syrup, milk, ice, sugar and the boba. It has been adapted to include an array of flavours and formats, like smoothies and shakes. In the pandemic, several places specialising in this drink cropped up across cities in India—there’s the Mongoose bubble bar in Mumbai, ELIXIR-Luxury Pearl Drink in Bengaluru and Got Tea in Delhi. Yusung Eo, co-founder of Got Tea, says they launched in 2020 because they noticed a gap. Apart from speciality coffee, such as Blue Tokai, and chai places, like Chaayos, there were no beverage brands offering premium, fun, trendy drinks for millennials and Gen Z. The inspiration for these drinks, he tended to agree, could lie in K-culture.

A friend from Singapore, who lives in Mumbai, pointed out that India is at stage 1 of the bubble tea movement, where flavour from artificial syrups is the focus and there is a lack of customisation. In Singapore, the evolution is in the second stage, which is all about tea infusions and customisation, and moving towards the third stage, hyper focused on an artisanal tea experience involving high-quality teas, brewed at specific temperatures and spotlighting the star ingredient—tea.

For the friend, CHICHA San Chen, with outlets in South-East Asia, Canada and California, US, encapsulates stage 3. I tried their black tea with cream in Singapore. With zero expectation, I took the first sip, and there it was—insert GIF of the food critic Anton Ego, fork in hand, overcome with food nostalgia from the film Ratatouille. I was transported back to the tea estates from my small hometown in Assam, with aromas of roasted leaves perfuming the air. CHICHA San Chen, a Taiwanese brand, sources its teas, from oolong to green and black tea, from plantations and brews them fresh. The end result is a drink that preserves the essence of tea.

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This experience led to two realisations: Good bubble teas exist. Indians are no strangers to the sublime flavours of teas from Darjeeling and malty notes of those from Assam. If a bubble tea is made with these brewed to perfection, it can give them an enduring Indian identity—but we are not there yet.

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