Bubble Tea: Where Did it come from?


Every summer I have a tendency to picture myself in various settings. The top choices tend to be in a hammock between two big trees with an enthralling book and a glass of tea so cold there’s condensation on the glass. The second is on the beach, preferably on the deck of a beach house where the sand is waiting just off the front porch.

I don’t think I’m alone in craving the crisp, refreshing taste of my favorite iced tea in the summer. The chink of ice in the glass is hypnotic. The color when sunbeams hit it just right is entrancing. For me, a chilled jasmine has always been perfection itself.

Nowadays, it’s difficult to think of iced tea without including bubble tea. It comes in a wide range of flavors, and colors, variances of sweetness. If you don’t know what a bubble tea is, typically it’s a sweetened and iced tea most popularly served with milk. The bubbles are traditionally tapioca balls (or pearls) but ever since its rapid spread from continent to continent, the ever-popular bursting bobba (clear balls filled with flavored syrup) have made an appearance. Not only in our tea but as a topping at frozen yogurt shops as well.

Despite its growing popularity, few people know where it originated. It’s the sort of story where, at its roots, repeats again and again over the years. A story about turmoil, cultural shifts, and a blending of tradition, fashion, and flavors.

'Vintage Style' image of a World War 2 US fighter plane shooting down Japanese torpedeo bomber over Saipan. (Artists Impression)The Chinese Revolution of 1949 was a chaotic time in the world. World War two was more or less over, but these things have a tendency to leave deep aching wounds behind. For China, in particular, much was already underway before the war, and China is where our story begins.

1926: Chinese communists join with the Nationalist army to eradicate warlords throughout the nation.

1927: The Nationalists turned on the Communists.

1931: The ROC ( The Government of the Republic of China) face the triple threat of Japanese invasion, Communist uprising, and warlord insurrections.

And it goes on.

By the time 1945 rolled around the leaders of the Nationalist and Communist parties, Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong met for a series of talks on the formation of a post-war government. The result was a huge failure, resulting in all-out civil war by 1946.

How, you may be asking, does this relate in any way to bubble tea?

History focuses a lot on names, dates, generals, military movements, and often neglect the everyday person trying to live their lives the best they can amongst the chaos. In times of great chaos, sometimes the best hope for a well-lived life is to leave your homes behind you. This is exactly what happened during the Chinese Civil war. Many civilians immigrated to Thailand, bringing with them their rich love and tradition for tea.

Cultures melded, as they tend to, and the result was an iced tea known as Thai Cha Yen – a combination of Assam or Ceylon with condensed milk and sugar. Often flavors like star anise, orange blossom and tamarind were added.

It wasn’t until 1988 that bubble tea came about quite by accident. Lin Hsiu Hui, a womanbubble tea and aiyu jelly, Taiwanese drink and dessert working at a teahouse, was eating a dessert with tapioca peals called fen yuan. On a whim, she added the tapioca from her dessert into her tea during a staff meeting. The rest, as is often say, is history.

Bubble tea today comes in a multitude of flavors including Matcha, and an endless variety of toppings including fruit. But did you know not all Bubble teas are made equal? Over the years of its spreading popularity, this sweet treat changed from brewed tea to powders or syrups with added color, flavor, and sugars, taking away much of its nutritious benefits. We at The Green Teahouse, keep to the tradition of using real tea in all our recipes.

As always stay healthy, and drink lots of tea.

~The Tea Barista.

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