Bubbling over

on Sunday, October 16, 2011 with 0 comments
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NO place is complete without a bubble tea stall. At least, that seems to be the case since the beginning of this year as tiny, shiny balls that have come to be known as “black pearls” invaded the shores of Malaysia.
Yes, bubble tea is “in” again.
We are seeing long queues at outlets, not unlike the ones seen when J.CO Donuts & Coffee first came to town. And it’s all for a slurp of the ice-cold confection topped with creamy milk swirls and scoops of yummy and gummy tapioca pearls.
The drinks, originally from Taiwan, first arrived in Malaysia about 10 years ago, although by then, we had already become enamoured of Starbucks Frappucinos and sidewalk cafés. As such, bubble tea was relegated to a once-in-a-blue-moon beverage — something you enjoyed if it happened to be available around the corner.
One of the most popular players in the industry, Yippee Cup, has been around since 2003, but with the arrival of international chains Chatime and Gong Cha, we are now seeing a surge of activities in the bubble tea front.
The craze has yet to ebb, even as reports claiming that selected Taiwanese-imported bubble tea syrups were tainted with the carcinogen DEHP (diethylhexyl phthalate) surfaced in June. Of course, the local operators have since been cleared of such claims. The crowd is back and it’s definitely gotten bigger. Which goes to show that bubble tea is not just another passing fad.
“Malaysians have started to embrace a modern tea-drinking culture,” says Chatime Malaysia’s chief executive officer Bryan Loo, 26. “Whenever we said yum cha in the past, we actually meant ‘Hey, let’s meet for coffee’.” Now, the phrase has taken on a more literal meaning.”
Price could be one factor in tea’s popularity. “Honestly, how many can afford to go to Starbucks all the time?” ponders Loo.
A cup of bubble tea costs on average RM6.90. What’s more, each sip evokes a sensory experience more addictive than milkshake with candy sprinkles, and decidedly more satisfying than a bar of caramel chocolate. And now that customisation is all the rage, new generation bubble tea brewers like Chatime and Gong Cha are letting their customers do more than just mix and match their pearl, pudding, aloe vera and jelly toppings.
Want less ice? Just have the bubble baristas shake off 50%. You can even ask for a cup dowsed with only 30% sugar. How? Modern bubble tea pantries are now equipped with accurate one-touch sugar dispensers. “In Taiwan, the concept of bubble tea is more health-oriented. Here, we tend to see it as a kind of junk food,” says Loo.
However, according to Billy Koh, 28, co-owner of Gong Cha Malaysia, bubble tea has evolved from being merely colourful, sugar-laced concoctions.
“When it was first introduced, the drinks were an unhealthy mix of sugar and coloured additives. So at one point, the demand just died off,” he recalls. “Now, with machines that let you customise drinks to suit your health concerns, people are starting to think that bubble tea isn’t necessarily all that bad for you.”
Choices, choices
A cup of fruity pearl milk tea today is usually infused with tea brewed from real tea leaves, dairy creamer and a dollop of concentrated fruit juice. The chewy black tapioca pearls are coated with caramelised brown sugar. Gong Cha also offers “white pearls” — seaweed extract spheres that the bubble brewery claims to be “high in fibre and low in calories”.
In Chatime’s outlets, customers get to choose from over 120 types of bubble tea concoctions, from Brown Rice Green Tea to exotic Japanese Sakura Sencha. If you like it hot, you’ll be happy to hear that steaming versions are available for 80% of the drinks, though few have developed a taste for them so far.
“Some have said that once you’ve tried hot bubble tea, you wouldn’t drink a cold one anymore,” says Loo.
The idea of warming your hands on a mug of hot bubble tea is not as odd as it may sound. When the thirst-quencher emerged in Taiwan in the 1980s, the first documented bubble tea was, after all, a cup of hot foamy,teh tarik-like brew, sans pearls. For now at least, cold bubble teas rule the roost.
Bubble tea’s greatest lure is perhaps the myriad of choices on offer – a luxury not often seen at popular coffee outlets. A beverage said to be for the young and young-at-heart, bubble tea draws in crowds by the thousands – Chatime’s outlet in The Gardens Mall, for instance, sells more than 1,200 cups on any given day. Its fanpage on Facebook has already garnered over 16,700 “likes”.
College student Shuana Yap, 17, says she craves bubble tea virtually every day. Her coursemate Eugene Gan, 18, recalls once having to queue up for over 30 minutes for a cup, but that it was “worth the wait”. Store supervisor Meera Mangalanaayagi, 29, says she has been drinking bubble tea every day for a year now.
“I used to drink iced milo every morning. Now I only take bubble tea,” she says.
To Taiwanese homemaker Vivian Lo, 31, the bubbly brew is refreshing, to say the least. “I love bubble tea. The ones here taste just as good as those in Taiwan,” says the mother of one, whose husband is Malaysian.
There are over 8,000 bubble tea cafes in Taiwan where the drink is all the rage, but bubble teas are also popular in Australia, the United States (an Asian restaurant in Greenwich Village serves spiked bubble tea) and more recently Britain, with the opening of Bubbleology in April.
Will bubble tea, like cutesy cupcakes and icing-drizzled doughnut, eventually be consigned to the dustbin of F&B history? At the rate it’s brewing, that seems quite unlikely.

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