Vancouverites already loved Slurpees and pricey Starbucks Frappuccinos, so when bubble tea Version 3.0 arrived here in the early 1990s, we were ready for it. What could be more natural than adding tapioca to icy drinks?
Now available in a rainbow of colours and varieties, bubble tea started from humble beginnings in the early ’80s, at stands near schools in the central Taiwanese city of Taichung. While details of the origin story vary, version 1.0 was allegedly created when one concession owner added sweet fruit flavourings to her iced green, red, and black teas, to her young customers’ delight. The popular concoctions were shaken, not stirred, until frothy and were hence named “bubble tea”. Around 1983, Version 2.0 added tapioca pearls (aka bobas) and spawned new, milky variations made with dairy or non-dairy powders. The drinks were then machine-shaken and sported airy bubbles on top and pearly bobas on the bottom. These were also sometimes called “pearl teas”. Version 3.0 made use of the electric blender, resulting in new varieties such as the “slush”. Slushes are indistinguishable from Slurpees, but they’re made to order instead of being dispensed from a machine. That’s a good thing, as healthier ingredients such as fresh berries, kiwi, and pineapple were soon available alongside flavour syrups, with or without the tea.
Favoured by expatriate youths from Taiwan and Hong Kong, bubble tea shops flourished in Vancouver. Many, like my long-time favourite Dragon Ball Tea House (1007 West King Edward Avenue) and the Yuen Yuen Café (5890 Cambie Street) are all about the drinks, with just a half-dozen snack-food items on their menus.
Possibly inspired by the proliferation of comfy Wi-Fi–enabled coffee houses, about five years ago version 4.0 bubble teas became star attractions on massive menus of “combo-style” restaurants. At the Soho Tea Room (3446 Cambie Street), bubble teas occupy two full menu pages and span nine categories: black and green tea, milk tea, coffee (hot or cold), slush, smoothie, blended drinks, Italian sodas, and “fresh milky”. Flavours range from litchi, grape, and peach to avocado, wheat germ, and chocolate mint, all offered with optional chewy bits—apart from the traditional tapioca pearls, there’s coconut jelly, mango stars, and aloe jelly, among others.
Soho Tea Room’s Chinese-interpreted pan-Asian menu is even more ambitious, with Hong Kong café–style sandwiches, barbecued duck rice noodle soup, laksa, and salmon Wellington. Recently, we chose a sweet, creamy litchi Calpis (read: yogurt) slush with pearls to go with our excellent Portuguese pork chop bun for a Macanese experience. We also had the chicken wings stuffed with sticky rice and drizzled with tea-infused honey, and curried beef brisket on rice, paired with a slush of grapefruit, peach, and litchi with crystal jelly (tiny citrus-y agar cubes).
For a taste of Taiwan hip, consider trying Soho’s Honey Toast Box dessert. A hollowed-out toasted loaf of bread is stuffed with honey-basted toast fingers, topped with vanilla ice cream and strawberries, drizzled with chocolate sauce, and garnished with an Oreo cookie. For me, it’s not really worth the 20-minute wait, but I might nominate it for a Facebook Food List Challenge.
For a more authentically Taiwanese combo, I recommend Corner 23 (4008 Cambie Street). While bubble tea is on the marquis, the Chinese name for this restaurant is named after its house specialty, Wan Luan zhu jiao, which literally means “pig trotter from the town of Wan-luan”. The pork hock is poached in a brine of soy sauce, sugar, and spices until tender yet “Q”—a Taiwanese term that describes the dish’s toothsome, chewy texture (and how bubble tea pearls are judged). Shaved off the bone and served with a sweet-tart soy-garlic sauce, this signature dish, which claims to trace its pedigree to the chef who invented it 60-odd years ago in the old country, is my prime reason to visit Corner 23. But I can never resist ordering the “rice meals”, which are presented like a Japanese set meal with three side dishes. For example, my Chicken With Three Spice meal came with cloud-ear fungus with ginger; baby bok choy with garlic; and a sesame oil–dressed rice noodle salad. I also strongly recommend the restaurant’s luscious braised pork belly with red fermented sauce and its crispy deep-fried chicken nuggets.
My favourite drink at Corner 23? Fresh kiwi slush with pearls. Go find your own—there’s no shortage of options.