The story of bubble tea and who first added in the pearls

Bubble tea has gained quite the following in Malaysia, with shops found at every corner.

Say what you want, there’s no denying just how popular bubble tea is today.

For near inexplicable reasons, these mostly sweet milk teas, that characteristically come with chewy black “pearls” nestled at the bottom, are a cultural phenomenon not only in Malaysia but throughout Southeast and East Asia.

Bubble tea shops have even sprung up in the US and some European countries.

It does seem that the young and old, can’t get enough of this addictive beverage despite it being a nutritionist’s nightmare. The bubble tea industry’s global market as of 2019 is valued at US$5.3 billion.

But just where did bubble tea originate?

On the western coast of Taiwan, about a two hour’s drive from Taipei, is the city of Taichung, regarded largely as an industrial hub.

But even with all of its busy warehouses and factories, this unassuming city is, in reality, the birthplace of the world-famous bubble tea.

There are clues to its identity such as the sheer number of bubble tea machines available even in simple convenience stores.

But bubble tea guzzlers must head to the city’s West District to find the holy site on Siwei Street that is Chun Shui Tang Teahouse.

This teahouse has a legitimate claim as the birthplace of bubble tea, though said claim is contested by at least one other tea entrepreneur.

Unlike the bubble teas in Malaysia that are commonly served in plastic cups, the teas here come in classier, refined sundae glasses.

While it has yet to make landfall in Malaysia, Chun Shui Tang is a prominent franchise in East Asia, an industry veteran with some 37 years under its belt and multiple stalls in Taiwan, Japan and Hong Kong.

There are hundreds of creative ways to put your own twist on bubble tea. Image: Chun Shui Tang Facebook.

The woman behind bubble tea

This extraordinary beverage is said to be the brainchild of one Lin Hsiu Hui, a staff member of the teahouse.

Having worked at Chun Shui Tang for over three decades, Lin however shies away from the title “inventor”, attributing the success of bubble tea to the company instead and reasoning that it was the nature of her job that she got the opportunity at all.

She explains that even as a young girl she wanted to be a waitress, and when a relative told her about the booming tea business, she saw it as a sign to have her dream job. This was in the 1980s.

“I feel like I loved it because I learnt a lot of skills,” Lin says of her waitressing days and how she remained passionate about the tea business even after years at her job and a promotion to product development manager.

As it turned out, the invention of bubble tea was not spontaneous but born out of Lin’s preference for fresh and aromatic milk tea.

One day she chanced upon a sweet tapioca pudding, which reminded her of her favourite childhood tapioca pearls.

These pearls are normally enjoyed hot, but because of the particularly hot weather at the time, Lin dropped them into a cold beverage instead.

A sweet glass of bubble tea is the perfect complement to any savoury dish. Image: Chun Shui Tang Facebook.

Bubble tea is born

The first bubble tea was born when she tossed them into her favourite milk tea. Her colleagues gave it the thumbs up and soon regular customers were requesting for it too.

“If something is good, it should be shared with others.” At her suggestion, the drink eventually made its way onto Chun Shui Tang’s menu.

Word about this new-fangled drink got around within the next two months and other teahouses on the same street and in other districts began selling it themselves.

By 1991, Taiwan had bubble tea shops bubbling up everywhere on the island.

Initially, Lin was indignant that others were taking her “hard-earned ideas” willy-nilly, but soon realised that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

She herself goes about taking a look at other companies’ offerings, and gets ideas for her own use.

Being acquainted with fellow players of the tea industry, she is aware of and is unperturbed by the rival claim on the inventorship of bubble tea, saying confidently that Chun Shui Tang put the drink on their shelves first.

The conflict apparently stemmed from Chun Shui Tang’s failure to patent the invention.

Making the perfect cup

There is more to making a good cup of bubble tea than just mixing the pearls in, Lin says, explaining that the pearls are made of cassava root, and should be digestible like any other starch product such as rice or potatoes.

Lin is confident of bubble tea’s sustained popularity as it enjoys a worldwide fanbase, and there are many countries bubble tea has yet to reach.

While thousands are happily gulping down their favourite choice of bubble tea, on a personal level, Lin is just happy that bubble tea is inspiring many in the tea industry.

There is also a sense of accomplishment, she said, seeing the many who genuinely enjoy it.

To fans of bubble tea everywhere, she had this to say, “Bubble tea is part of the tea-drinking experience. It’s an entry point to drinking tea. I hope those who love it will continue to support it and keep it going.”