Street Food Focus: Bubble Tea

By: Justin Chan

I'm always in Chinatown during the weekends (if you didn't figure out from my last street food post), only because I have an addiction to playing basketball at Columbus Park, which is located at the corner of Mosco and Mulberry Streets. To get there, I'm forced to navigate through the tons of tourists that walk down Canal and Mott Streets. I've grown accustomed to seeing some of them stand aimlessly in the middle of the sidewalk and look as if they've just entered a foreign land.

Sometimes, I can't help myself but wonder what makes the neighborhood so particularly appealing to these foreigners. Is it the row of roasted ducks that hang from the restaurant windows? Or is it just the idea that you can't find this many old-school Chinese residents outside of Manhattan? Some tourists and local visitors will tell you that the answer is neither. In fact, they'll tell you that they're in the neighborhood only to buy bubble tea, a beverage craze (milk tea with tapioca balls) that has become increasingly popular in the past several years.

The history behind bubble tea is unclear, although the consensus is that it originated in Taiwan during the early 1980s. From there, two stories have emerged. According to one story, in 1983, Liu Han Chie, owner of Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichun, experimented with cold milk tea by adding tapioca balls, fruits, and syrup. The drink became popular after a Japanese television show did a highlight on it. Another story, however, credits Tu Tsong He Hanlin of Tainan. Hanlin supposedly made the drink with white pearl-like fenyuan balls, giving the beverage the moniker, "pearl tea." He later changed it to the black tapioca balls that are used in bubble tea today.

Most people who buy bubble tea are unconcerned with its history. After all, drinking it and sucking the tapioca balls through a jumbo straw is more interesting (and entertaining) than actually knowing the name of the person who invented it. Nowadays, bubble tea comes in a variety of flavors. Customers can either choose to have milk tea or fruit juice with tapioca. In some cases, they can have a bit of both (vendors can add fruit flavors to milk bubble tea by throwing in fruit syrup or extract to the mix). No matter what kind of bubble tea you prefer, perhaps the most enjoyable part is watching the silky (but flavor-less) tapioca balls move up your straw and roll onto your tongue. The mere idea of being able to eat something while drinking tea, to me, is mind-boggling, but it will definitely keep drinkers amused for awhile.

For a list of bubble tea shops, check out below!

Quickly - 237 Grand Street, New York

Vivi Bubble Tea - 49 Bayard Street #1, New York

TKettle Bubble Tea - 26 Saint Marks Place, New York

Ten Ren Tea Metro Ing - 8328 Broadway, Flushing

Have you tried bubble tea? What's your favorite flavor?

Photo: FullyFunctnlPhil

For more on street food, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)