Welcome back everyone! Akemashite omedetou!!!
Back in high school I knew a guy named Buster. Well, that was his name in his sophomore year, but during his junior year he got into a fight and someone threw him into a popcorn machine and we started calling him Poppers! Then in our graduating year, he went by the name Pinwheel. He also went by the names Bunnyboy, OJ (the juice, not the criminal), Mountain Mo and Tulips. His real name was Morris. With so many names, it was a miracle that we knew who he was with whichever name he was called!
This reminds me of the first time I heard about tapioca. I was in the sixth grade when a stand opened at my hometown of Arcadia with the humble words "Tapioca". My friend asked if I wanted to go to "bubble tea", and I said I'd rather go try "tapioca" instead. We were talking about the same thing! Whether it is called QQ, pearl tea, boba, nai cha, pearl shake, or tapioca, those silly flavored drinks with the chewy balls and the giant straw have won over the hearts of many guys, gals, kids and the elderly throughout Asia and the world!
But where did this crazy phenomenon come from? Who came up with such a wild idea? Let's ride the DeLorean and set it back to 1983: the year of Michael Jackson's moonwalk, IBM computers, Flashdance and the grand opening of Tokyo Disneyland! Junbi dekiteru? Hajimemashou!
Back in 1983, a Taiwanese teashop owner named Liu Han-Chieh decided to put jelly pellets in tea. This, in and of itself, was nothing original because the Vietnamese have been putting jelly pellets in milk, ginger ale and other drinks throughout their region's history. But Liu Han-Chieh did two things that were unheard of before in Taiwan (and most of Asia) at the time -- making tea iced and sweet (a very different concept than American Iced Tea, this was more like blender ice) and marketing it to schoolchildren. Liu had no name for his invention, but the children referred it to as the "chew chew" drink in English (hence the first name: QQ). Most of the adult world dismissed Liu's drink as a novelty, since tea was considered a serious and sophisticated item in every Asian culture (Think of it as rap using classical piano, which Jay-Z did in his song Empire State of the Mind. You may say Jay-Z is the Liu Han-Chieh of rap!).
However! History is about being in the right place at the right time! A small television crew for a Japanese television show saw Liu's teashop and not long after, Liu became a star.......in Japan! That's right, while tapioca tea ultimately is known as a Taiwanese invention, it didn't hit popularity in Taiwan until after Japan and Hong Kong made it a fad first! By this time, it became known as many names depending on the region and the language, which led to its different names once it hit North America. The craze hit Toronto in the late 90's by which it was known as bubble tea. Some speculate that bubble tea got its name by the plastic bubble domes of the drink containers, but others speculate, much like how the name QQ came out of Taiwanese children who could barely say the English words "chew chew", bubble tea came out of English speaking Canadians who could barely say the Chinese words "boba" tea. And so, by the year 2000, bubble tea/tapioca/pearl shake/QQ/boba spread through North American cities with large Asian populations like LA and New York City. By the end of 2010, even cities like Anchorage, Alaska and Biloxi, Mississippi had tapioca tea houses!
If you're like me, however, you may start wondering what the heck are in those chewy balls? Unlike hard candy, it doesn't dissolve in your mouth and unlike Starbursts, they don't stick to your teeth. Yet, they're flavorless by themselves, yet I can't live without them in my drink. And why do the balls have to be so big? Well, the balls are made from a plant called tapioca (hence, the name of the drink). Tapioca is a natural pudding-like plant used primarily used as paste in cooking by many cultures especially in South America and Southeastern Asia. Because it was usually used to thicken other ingredients, it never gained worldwide attention until it was used as a main independent ingredient in bubble tea. As for the large pearl shape, it was originally a manufacturing and shipping decision. Spherical shapes are more easy to organize in a package and easy to pour into blenders. Liu's original QQ tea didn't feature spherical tapioca, but unidentifiable hand cut ones! However, why must they be so large? This answer comes from marketing -- the drinks primarily are popular because of their visibility. It was decided early on to make the cups as transparent as possible and the balls large for their marketability. After all, that's what makes them stand out!
Today there are an infinite flavors of bubble tea! Some of the more popular ones include Thai Tea, Jasmine Green Tea, Honey, Passion Fruit, Almond Milk, Honeydew, Taro, Honey Lemon and, of course, the Original (milk and tea)! Almost every tapioca teahouse will have over 50-100 flavors. The record for the most bubble tea flavors is Koi Cafe in Singapore with 671!!! Wow! (Meanwhile, the record for the lowest combination of flavors is probably the udon shop at the first floor of my apartment that serves...2 flavors. Boo.)
In previous years, there has been a revolution among the concept of bubble tea -- some have lost interest in the chewy tapioca balls. In their place, a new group are fighting for its successor. Egg pudding has been the front runner (I must admit, it is really, really good with bubble tea!). Various fruit, such as strawberry and kiwi have given it a fruit-tea vibe. Others include colorfully mixed gummy, diced taro, azuki red beans, marshmellows and for health fanatics: agar. However, perhaps they could all get along and harmonize. I certainly enjoy agar WITH tapioca balls!
Like all industries, the tapioca teahouses have been tainted with a scandal concerning health risks. Lower grades of syrup and milk powder have been caught containing harmful chemicals. Beware of lower end, corner market tapioca shops which may try to cut costs by purchasing these low grade ingredients! Last year, investigative journalism in Taiwan revealed a plasticizer was used as a substitute for the stabilizers. Buyer beware! However, thanks to responsible reporting, there was no actual health crisis which resulted from the profit-greedy hooligans that made cheap bubble tea syrup and milk powder. Pshew!
Whatever you choose to call it, whether it is tapioca, boba, bubble tea, pearl shake, or QQ, those drinks are here to stay! It is estimated that there are currently 50,000+ tapioca teahouses throughout the world! Most like it because of the novelty, others love it because of their low calorie count, but if you're like me, nothing beats the unique blend of tea and milk flavor with a side of chewy balls slipping into my throat through a giant straw!
Until next 15 days, mata oai shimasho!