The Joys of Boba

Tomorrow (April 30th) is National Bubble Tea Day – so Instagram says, and this is my excuse for pondering a panegyric on the subject, with a trip to Formosa later. Doubtless I am falling into the marketing ploy, but the fact that bubble tea (or boba) is five minutes away means I can’t resist, and it feels marvellous in itself that there is such a shop nearby, and such a day.

After all, remember back when bubble tea barely existed in England? I remember hopelessly trying to explain to my friends in the playground what this fabulous beverage was – LOADS OF SUGAR, I think I said, and well, PEARLS (so the translation goes), which you can eat! ‘Eating pearls?’ they queried, sceptically. ‘In tea?’ This was, perhaps, ten or fifteen years ago (I am proud to say that they’re now as obsessed as I am).

Yet such ramblings on sugar and pearls only enriched the golden associations of bubble tea at the time: for me it represented summer, and fun, and endless carousels of all-you-can eat vegetarian buffets, for bubble tea meant Taiwan which, in those days, meant simply family. I loved bubble tea so much that my aunt always had one waiting for me, cold and sweet, the very day we stepped off the plane, jet-lagged and tired but so excited to be ‘back’.

So perhaps there is something inherently childish about my love of bubble tea: I like the satisfying pop when you strike your straw through the cellophane cover, and the focus needed to get at those last bubbles. I love how QQ they are (a word for a specific kind of chewiness; there are some onomatopoeias that English needs, and QQ is one of them!). Part of the fun is in the translation; I enjoy poring over the menu with its myriad flavours – taro, red bean, mango yakult, and more – seeing which Chinese characters I recognize, or how they’ve rendered the English (T4’s ‘Ballet chocolate milk tea’ is an intriguing one), though I almost always get the classic. The aroma of sugar and milk and oolong tea on a hot day makes me feel as though 7-elevens and egg cakes should be just around the corner. Partly such ludicrous nostalgia comes from not visiting Taiwan for three years – the longest ever – or possibly I’m just hungry (for rice burgers and gua bao and shaved ice with grass jelly).

So perhaps there is something inherently childish about my love of bubble tea

It’s the ultimate treat. Before bubble tea stores began opening in London, we tried making them at home, cooking tapioca pearls in sugar and water before enthusiastically dolloping them into milky tea. It doesn’t quite capture the slight decadence which bubble tea ought to have however: there’s a knack to getting the texture of the pearls right and, besides, the amount of sugar doesn’t really bear thinking about… Better, these days, to glide serenely into a shop and request – Lychee? Jasmine? Winter melon? – and find the sweetness placed in your hands, to enjoy with friends and family under a blue sky.

Bubble tea is ‘normal’ now, and you even can find such innovations (or aberrations) as boba pizza or boba noodles, as well as the (much nicer) bubble-tea flavoured mochi. It is moreover possible to speak of ‘boba liberalism’ or the ‘Milk Tea Alliance’, purchase plushies or necklaces with kawaii bubble tea designs, and read long-form articles about its connotations. Invented in Taiwan and popularised by the Asian diaspora in America, it occupies an idiosyncratic role as a popular drink that has been embraced as an icon – the humble bubble tea as a cultural identity symbol and touchstone of politics.

But I still feel a silly thrill of delight when I have one, and Oxford has so many bubble tea stores: Formosa is truly wonderful, and I go to Chatime or YiFang for old time’s sake (Bubbleology however, with its brash unfamiliar colours, is one I’ve yet to explore!). On other days I almost regret the proliferation – the temptation! – and perhaps because it’s not the same. What I wish for is a cup of endless summer days where the big question of ‘where do we go next?’ meant arcades or a Rilakkuma café. Then my cup of bubble tea arrives, delicious as always, and I am ridiculously glad. Wishing you all a Happy Bubble Tea Day.

Image description: A person holding bubble milk tea

Image credits: Free image via RODNAE Productions