In pursuit of bubble tea


My roommate Kimberly and I stand in front of the Bubble Tease shop at Eaton Center, Toronto. A sizable crowd clusters before the cash register, rattling off a list of ingredients. Behind the counter, waitresses glide around each other, filling plastic containers with varicolored liquids.

Okay, youve got to try Bubble Tease, Kim chimes. Its one of those things thats pretty Asian, and I know youve been craving bubble tea.

I stare up at the drinks menu, divided into five ovals, each in bright colors and hosting a long list of flavors. Yeah, I miss bubble tea.
Despite my constant exposure to Western traditions and habits in my seven years of education at an American international school, and my embracing of Western cuisine from around the world, there are times when I miss distinct Asian flavors. Chinese food — Sichuan, Cantonese, Hunanese, Shanghainese — taste different from each other, ranging from peppery-spicy, pungent and sniffle-inducing to steamed and mild-tasting dishes. There is something about the way they are cooked, however, often with a million ingredients thrown in, that reminds me irrevocably of home.

Kim smiles at me and leaves me to study the menu. My eyes trail down the list of flavors, mixes and combinations. Papaya, honeydew and taro — the list goes on. I close my eyes, open them and hunt desperately for a bubble tea that contained black tea, milk, the tapioca bubbles and nothing else, period.

So, have you decided what youre going to get? Kim asks, pouring loose change from her clutch purse onto her palm. She fingers through the dual-colored toonies, off-gold loonies and bright silver quarters.

Kim, for either the milk tea or the bubble tea, it says I have to pick a flavor, I mutter, burying my fists in my jacket pockets. Um… can I just get normal, plain bubble tea?

Kim tips her head to the side. You dont want to try any of the flavors? I usually get lychee and lemon bubble tea. It tastes divine.

I shake my head. In Asia, when we say bubble tea, its just that — tea and the bubble pearls. You have to go to a café if you want specialty bubble teas, but even then, we dont mix in, I glance up at the menu with a slight shudder, up to three different flavors in them.

Plain, flavorless bubble tea? Kim says, scrunching her eyebrows. Really?

I nod, my bangs flying hittery-skitter over my eyes.

Okaaaaaaay. Well, lets ask them, Kim says, tapping two fingers against her left arm. It never hurts, and I know what its like not to get food the way you like it. I get iffy when someone claims to make Filipino dishes but the taste is completely off.

I step up to the counter. Hi. Is it possible for me to just get a plain milk tea and just add the… tapioca? My tongue stumbles over the unfamiliar terminology and I smile sheepishly at the waitress.

So… what flavor do you want, again? the waitress asks, one light-brown eyebrow raised, her marker tip poised over the side of the plastic cup.

Well, I dont want any flavor. I just want plain milk tea, but with the tapioca.

The waitress glances at me, glances up at the menu and glances around her for help. I think you still have to choose a flavor. How about lemon?

Its okay, thanks.

I back away, and wait for Kim to get her lychee-lemon-bubble tea. She slurps the large, black tapioca through her straw; they swirl in a stream of cream-white liquid. Strands of lychee flicker through the tea.

Want to try? I get this combo every time I have bubble tea here.

I wave one hand at her. Its okay. Its not the same, but Ill try it next time.

What I crave at the moment was the taste of Asian bubble tea, not a Canadian hybrid.


I set out on a hunt for the mythical Taiwanese bubble tea. The Chinese call bubble tea zhen zhu nai cha, literally pearl milk tea, and I am determined to get my little treasure treat. I know the one surefire place to get authentic bubble tea, but going to Chinatown counted as cheating and I refuse to transit several times and travel forty-five minutes to get to a Chinese operated bubble-tea shop.

Whats up with you Canadians? Why do you insist on adding all sorts of flavors to everything you sell? I ask Kim one day, genuinely curious.

You know, I have no idea, Kim replies. Maybe were just too used to having excessive taste to our drinks?

They could at least offer the most basic version, I say, glaring at my kettle, then at the Earl Grey teabag sitting in my white mug. I just want bubble-bubble tea. Its easiest to make — they just skip adding a bunch of fruit syrup into it.

You know, you could just try the Canadian bubble tea, Eva, my other roommate, calls from the living room. Its not quite the same as bubble tea in Hong Kong, but lemon bubble teas pretty good!

I refuse to convert! I call back, and bypass the milk carton in my hunt for sugar to flavor my tea.


Eva, Janet and I settle into the wicker-woven chairs at Axia, a Chinese-Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant and bar. I lean back against the red embroidered cushions and stare at the wooden beams and globular white lamps hanging like large full moons.

Hey, Lynny, you should try getting your bubble-bubble tea here. Eva places her slim, dark scarlet Motorola phone on the table and folds her hands atop each other. A thin silver band shines on her right middle finger. Seriously, were not getting more Asian in a Canadian restaurant than this.

Hai la, Janet says, slipping into Cantonese — Eva and Janet are from Hong Kong and I am proficient enough in Cantonese to carry normal conversations. Please, they seriously fail if they dont have it here.

Exactly, Eva says. Mmm, Taiwanese bubble tea, with milk and tapioca pearls, cold and soothing, just the way its supposed to be.
I make a face and glance at the snow swirling outside Axias wide glass windows. I really shouldnt be drinking cold beverages in this weather.

But honestly, if its authentic bubble tea, Ill take it.

Hello, ladies, what can I get for you today? Our waiter — Steve, his name tag proclaims — stops by our table, smiling at us.
I wait for Janet and Eva to place their meal and drink orders before speaking. I would like the Korean bulgogi beef, please.

Sure thing. And any drinks for you?

I glance up and smile. Okay. Im just wondering if I can just have normal bubble tea.

Steve blinks at me. Pardon?

I riffle through the menu and poke my finger at the milk tea line. You know, bubble tea… just plain milk tea with tapioca in it? With no other flavors whatsoever.

Steve stares at the menu for a long second before turning back to his notepad. So, you want milk tea… with tapioca?

Yup, just bubble tea. I cross my fingers under the table and glance across the table at Eva and Janet. They grin back at me.

Okay. Ill look into that. Steve collects our menus and recovers his smile. Ill be back with your drinks shortly, ladies.

Hey, hes cute, Janet says, turning to watch Steve walk away, her chandelier earrings jangling quietly. Her eyes snag on the olive-skinned man mixing drinks behind the sleek bar counter. The bartender wears a snug white button-down shirt and a wide smile. Hey, that drink-tender is cuter, even with his shaved head.

Eva and I twist in our seats. Yeah, I guess hes pretty cute, Eva comments. Between Steve and him, Ive got to say the drink-tenders better looking.

Hmm… hes kind of good looking, I say. But hes not really my type, so I cant say much.

Oh good. Janet sighs and pulls out her cellphone. She aims the phone towards the gap between Eva and I. The phone emits a muted click.

Did you just take a picture of the bartender? I demand.

Eye candy, okay? I cant let this opportunity go by. Janets eyes widen. Hey, the drink-tenders looking in this direction. Hey, hes walking over here!

Janet almost drops her phone in her hurry to hide it. Eva and I drop our gaze to the table. I bite my lips to stop the smile attempting to creep across my face. Janets face flushes pink.

The Eurasian bartender halts by my seat. Hey there, he says. So youre the young lady who wanted a specialty drink? Steve was a little vague on the details, so I came to clear things up.

I scan for a name tag, but Eva stifles a giggle into a cough and I start babbling instead. Yeah, I just wanted a normal bubble tea. Its basically just milk tea, you know, tea with milk and tapioca in it.

So, just a normal tea, huh? Black tea? the drink-tender smiles and his hazel-brown eyes are bright in the restaurant lights. The corners of his eyes are creased from laugh lines.

Black tea, yes, and milk, with a little bit of honey and the tapioca pearls.

Wah, ni gou yan zhan hai gei sik gong tin wah, this guy sure knows how to be suave, Eva mutters, her voice carrying across the table. Janet makes an odd noise, a cross between a splutter and a laugh, and I aim a kick under the table.

Got it, the bartender says, barely blinking at the yelp Eva gave. Ill be right back — Ill get you the drink you wanted so much.
Thank you, I murmur. I turn my attention back to my friends and glare.

Janet pats at her cheeks. Ho hor oui ah! Hes really cute!

If he gets me my bubble tea, Ill worship both his looks and his skills, I mutter.

Ten minutes later, Steve carries our drinks to us. He sets out Evas iced lemon tea, Janets coke and my bubble tea—in a tea mug. I stare at the tiny mugful of milky-brown liquid, a perfect blend of milk and black tea. Eva leans forward, hands clasped together under her chin. Janets eyes flicker from my face, to my drink and back up again.

I touch my hand to the mugs side, my eyes falling shut despite myself.

Warmth radiated from my mug of bubble tea. My perfect blend of cold bubble tea was hot.