The mind-boggling array of flavours, the suspiciously fat straws, the disconcertingly long queues… for the uninitiated, boarding the bubble tea bandwagon can be a daunting prospect. Fear not: Lucy Zee is here to walk you through it.
You see them on Queen Street, wearing rare TNs, the latest Off-White™ jacket and some $320 Travis Scott collab sweatpants. Their faces are K-beauty routine flawless, their haircuts are fresh, they’re standing in packs and they’re all holding what seem to be extraordinarily flimsy plastic cups filled with floating bits, with a straw as thick as your forefinger.
This, my friend, is bubble tea, a sweet dessert-style Asian drink.
The “bubble” in bubble tea is a loose name for the tapioca starch balls that sit in the drink. It’s also used as a broad term to cover the style of drinks, whether there are floaty bits or not. Bubble tea is also known as “boba”, which is also a nickname for boobies.
Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and sold at night markets and chain stores, bubble tea has crept into the western world in the last 10 years or so years thanks to the ever-growing Asian diaspora. Much like yum cha, jap-chae and halo-halo, bubble tea is a nice reminder of home and/or childhood memories in a foreign country.
Original? Fruit teas? Slush? Pearls? Egg pudding? Aloe? Non-bubble-tea drinkers can usually get their heads around the idea of lemon ice green tea or milky strawberry, but for newbies, seeing the “toppings” sections is usually when the fear sets in. It’s like they’re unable to figure out how you would drink AND eat at the same time, forgetting that they probably took part in the “freakshake” craze of 2017.
The toppings are what separates the popular Taiwanese drink from the boring old chain store iced coffee. It’s a drink and a dessert in one massively long single-use plastic cup consumed through a famously fat straw.
The bubble tea shop has become a staple in all major cities and there are at least six on Auckland’s Queen Street alone. Stores such as Chatime, Hulu Cat and Gong Cha are notoriously busy, churning out hundreds of cups of the sweet stuff every day. You’ll see students, yuppies and family groups lined up ready with a well-rehearsed custom combination bubble tea order.
You definitely don’t want to be the mouth-agape, slow-thinking, menu-staring asshole at the counter. Speed and accuracy is of the essence when ordering bubble tea – know what you want before you head to the counter. Say your order loudly and confidently and you’ll get exactly what you want and, even better, earn the respect of the bubble tea counter staff.
Knowing the answers to the following five questions before they’re asked is going to get you the most efficient and accurate service.
- What size do you want?
- Which flavour drink do you want?
- Which toppings would you like to add?
- What is your sweetness level?
- What is your ice level?
- Are you paying with cash or card?
If you’re able to nail the answers to these before they’re asked, you’re on your way to sipping a cup of sweet heaven.
If you’re unsure of what to order, here are some popular bubble tea drinks to try before you come up with your own favourite combo.
ORIGINAL MILK TEA WITH PEARLS
This classic staple consists of strongly brewed black tea shaken up with milk and a generous scoop of sticky caramelised tapioca pearls. Suck it through the obligatory fat straw, making sure to block your airways when the balls come up and into your mouth, or you’ll choke like an amateur. Chew them, enjoy the sticky, bouncy texture and wonder what other flavours you want to try next.
MATCHA MILK TEA WITH EGG PUDDING
Matcha is a special green tea from Japan and the flavour’s now found in any good high-end ice cream store. The bitterness of the green tea powder works well with any sugar-based treat. If you’re a fan of custard, the egg pudding is a firmer and less sweet version of the classic Kiwi dessert. The egg pudding has the same texture as an egg tart you’ll find at any yum cha – it’s rich, velvety and melts in your mouth.
The cute purple taro colour is a favourite with the Instagram foodies. Fortunately, in this situation, taro slush milk tea tastes as good as it looks. If you’re a fan of the vanillary mashed potato-like root, some bubble tea places will also do a taro pudding topping that goes well with any milk-based drinks on the menu and in your hand for a VSCO girl gram.
LYCHEE FRUIT BLACK TEA WITH LYCHEE JELLY
Lactose intolerant? Not all bubble teas are dairy-based – fruit teas are the perfect option for your fragile bellies. Milk-free sweet and tart combinations are almost endless on a bubble tea menu. Each jelly topping can pair well with any fruit tea – you’ll be surprised how much the flavour of a fruit tea changes with the choice of jellies you add.
MILK TEA WITH ALL THE TOPPINGS
Warning: you might look like the biggest dick in the store if you’re standing there holding up the line with a Frankenstein monster of an order. It’s not normal to do, but it is possible to pull off. If you want to try every topping in one go and aren’t afraid of mixing citrus jellies with dairy-based puddings, this might be the one for you. Sure, you’ll look stupid and your straw might not be able to handle all the toppings, but hey, sometimes you gotta seize life by the tapioca balls.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.