What is that strange phenomenon when you hear about something for the first time and suddenly it seems to keep crop up everywhere? Well, that has been my experience this week with bubble tea. Until a week ago I had never even heard of this drink when I stumbled across a reference to it online. I did a little bit of research and discovered that it was a drink invented in Taiwan, apparently in the 80s, but now popular throughout South East Asia, the west coast of the USA, and Canada. It's a drink that seems to have countless variations. Some contain actual tea, green, oolong or black, some don't; some have milk or soy milk in, some don't; some have fruit or are purely fruit based, and some don't; etc. etc. But the one thing they have in common is tapioca. What?! I hear all you Brits saying, the disgusting stuff like frog spawn that we used to be force-fed at primary school? Well, no, not exactly. It is possible to get a bubble tea made with the small white pearl tapioca but the more common drink is made with large black tapioca pearls.
It sounded incredibly intriguing, if not altogether pleasant, but as I'd never heard of it I figured I would have to wait until I was off on my travels before I'd get a chance to give it a try. Then, just a couple of days later I received a Tweet from Time Out mentioning a place in London's Chinatown which specialised in bubble tea. So in the spirit of tea-research I decided to drag my other half along this afternoon and try it for myself.
Upon arrival we were faced with a fairly lengthy choice of flavours. My other half decided to try the mango and I went for taro which the very friendly waitress described as popular and made from a kind of yam. I was skeptical but I'd read somewhere that it was a classic so I decided to give it a go. I guess the first thing I want to say about bubble tea is that it's as weird as it sounds. Essentially the liquid tastes like a sweet milkshake, but coming up through the wide straw you also have the chewy tapioca pearls. So that's what you do, slurp and chew. It's a fairly odd concept for a westerner who's used to food being chewy and drinks being, well, liquidy, but once you get used to it it's really pretty nice. And actually, it's apparently a good sign that the tapioca was so chewy as if they're not fresh they tend to go more slushy. On the flavour front, I fear I was being a little too adventurous going for the taro as I much preferred the mango but overall it was an experience I suspect I'll be repeating. One of the things I liked is that it's sort of a drink and dessert in one - I found it really filling. And as the cafe is open until 11pm Sunday to Thursday and 2am at the weekend it'd be perfect for a late night pud on the way home.
So, if you're in Chinatown and fancy giving bubble tea a try I'd recommend Candy Cafe at 3 Macclesfield Street. Go on, be adventurous - although maybe trying the drink is adventurous enough, stick to a flavour you know you like. And if you do try it, or you're already an aficionado, let me know what you think.