It’s pretty difficult to have a conversation about bubble tea without facing all of the innuendos about balls in your mouth so, as my teachers would often say, let’s all stop for a minute to have a good laugh…. sniggering over? Good.
Bubble tea is a relative newcomer to the London food and drink world. As much so that when I mentioned it in my office this afternoon, only three people had heard of it: one was curious, one was repulsed and one almost jumped of his chair with excitement shouting “Bubble tea? In London? Amazing!” This colleague is from New Zealand where bubble tea is kind of old hat – for years he would wander down to a place nestled amongst the city’s Chinese restaurants to try out the different flavours, however since moving to London he had not come across it.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s before spreading first across Asia, and then over to the western world. The original formula for this drink was a shot of black tea, with condensed milk and tapioca pearls that sink to the bottom and give the impression of bubbles. This has evolved over the years with the milk being flavoured with other ingredients such as vanilla and coffee and the introduction of fruit tea versions. The tapioca pearls themselves are often flavoured with sesame or brown sugar or replaced altogether by ‘popping’ jelly versions.
For my first stop I headed down to Bubbleology in Soho, one of their three branches and ordered a taro flavoured bubble tea on the recommendation of my New Zealander colleague. Bubbleology very much focuses on the ‘science’ of bubble tea, with their laboratory-style decor, staff in white coats and test tube-style straws. The taro tea was delicious; earthy, slightly sweet and almost coffee-like. Some people may dislike the sensation of having balls in their mouth (sorry!) – slippery, gelatinous spheres sloshing around in their drink, but I rather like the textural element it gives. Also, I have eaten tapioca in a variety of desserts, so am used to the texture, but it may not be for the squeamish.
After this, I walked down Shaftesbury Avenue to bubble tea veteran Boba Jam, slightly more traditionally furnished and offering a number of Chinese desserts alongside their bubble tea range. I ordered a banana bubble-tea to go and took it on the tube with me where, after being cut up on the escalator, I discovered a use for the tapioca balls – being shot out of a straw with a sharp exhale to an unsuspecting victim (no, I didn’t, but I really wanted to!). The banana tea was incredibly sweet and had the artificial taste of banana milkshake. I started to wish I’d ordered the coffee flavour. The tapioca pearls were also squashier in texture and I found myself trying to hoover up the last few with the straw like a kind of desperate Hungry Hippo. The preference is all down to personal taste… it just depends on how firm you like your balls.
Bubbleology, 49 Rupert Street, London W1D 7PF
Boba Jam, 100-102 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5EE