Call it a fad or call it the best drink to be invented since, um, tea, but there’s no denying that bubble tea is taking the world by storm. So why have so many of us never heard of it before? Perhaps it’s because Dubai has a relatively small Asian community to promote and purvey the drink, unlike the other places where bubble tea has proved so popular.
The milky, syrup-flavoured drink is thought to have originated in Taiwan in the ’80s, before making its way to mainland China and spreading across Asia. It then emigrated to countries with large Asian communities such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the West Coast of the United States.
To find out more, we travelled to Dragonmart, arguably the closest thing Dubai has to a Chinatown, to meet Thomas Yang, manager of juice bar Fruitealicious. Since arriving in Dubai two years ago, Thomas has been spreading the bubble tea gospel and it seems people are beginning to listen.
‘The majority of my customers are Chinese and Filipino,’ he explains ‘But I think this is just because of where my store is located. I’m starting to get more local and Western customers now – the drink is refreshingly appealing in Dubai because of the hot weather.’
As bubble tea novices, we’re intrigued to find out more about the drink. ‘When I was a bubble tea layman, I thought the name was referring to the tapioca balls [found in the bottom of the tea], but in fact it’s just a direct translation from the Mandarin Chinese, which refers to the air bubbles,’ Thomas explains.
Bubble tea contains a tea base mixed with milk and syrup flavours such as taro (Thomas’s favourite), mango, chocolate, mocha or coffee. The ‘boba balls’, which make bubble tea instantly recognisable, are made from tapioca starch (‘fenyuan’ in Chinese) and can be slurped up through the wide straws that are served in the drink as part of the ‘bubble tea experience’.
Of course, there are many different variations of the drink. Ping Pong in The Dubai Mall gives its bubble tea a sophisticated twist, serving it as a mocktail rather than a milk-based beverage. Manager Muzaffer Mehmet explains that the venue only serves bubble tea with black tapioca balls, which are more difficult to get hold of and cannot be stored at room temperature (unlike the white tapioca balls). Interestingly, tapioca is flavourless on its own and absorbs its taste from the tea mix.
At the height of bubble tea’s popularity in the West, concerns were raised when the harmful chemical DEHP was found in strawberry syrup used in some drinks. However, Thomas maintains that all his ingredients are safe. Safe, yes, but bubble tea isn’t perhaps the healthiest drink you’re likely to taste because it is high in sugar (explaining why it’s so darn delicious), though some respite is offered by way of the tapioca balls, which contains the B vitamin folate, as well as minerals such as iron and calcium, plus smaller quantities of potassium, zinc, copper, manganese and selenium.
Of course, it’s not the lightweight health benefits that have helped to make bubble tea a global sensation, yet as much as we enjoy the imaginative flavours and the chewing-gum-like consistency of the tapioca balls, we really can’t figure out where the drink’s cult following has come from. Yes, we appreciate its mildly addictive quality, but even this can’t explain the innumerable Facebook pages and websites dedicated to the drink.
Even Thomas and Muzzaffer are stumped, but we suspect that neither of them is too concerned – as long as the drink is selling well, they’re happy. And at the moment, they’re smiling from ear to ear. Fruitealicious and Ping Pong are both doing roaring trade in bubble tea (the drink accounts for the majority of mocktail sales at the latter venue), and it seems it’s only a matter of time before the drink is as popular in Dubai as it is in the US. And we’re happy to go along with it – after all, how many drinks can you also eat?
Where to drink bubble tea in Dubai
Guests can sample fruity varieties of high-end bubble tea at this Asian restaurant chain, which hails from London.
The Dubai Mall (04 339 9088).
Check out Thomas’s store in Dragonmart for a rainbow of bubble tea flavours.
Dragonmart, Zone B, International City (050 116 3280)
As well as serving meaty Mongolian fare, this restaurant shows its sweeter side by serving a range of bubble teas.
Mall of the Emirates (04 341 1154). Other location: Lamcy Plaza, Oud Metha (04 335 8330).
Panda offers Sichuan staples alongside contemporary dishes such as orange chicken and, of course, bubble milk tea.
Mall of the Emirates (04 341 1156). Other locations: Deira City Centre (04 295 0041), The Dubai Mall (04 339 9321), Dubai Outlet Mall (04 425 5934).
This venue serves two bubbly flavours: black tea and green tea.
Dubai Healthcare City, Oud Metha (04 435 5650).
A Time Out fave – this authentic Chinese restaurant in Dragonmart stays true to its roots serving an array of bubble tea flavours.
Dragonmart, International City (04 368 7070).
Where does it come from?
While everyone more or less agrees that bubble tea was first concocted in Taiwan in the’80s, there is some debate about who is responsible for the phenomenon. Some believe it was created by chef Liu Han Chieh, owner of Chun Shui Tang in the city of Taichung, who took to mixing syrup, milk tea and pieces of fruit, while others trace the origins back to Hanlin tea shop in Tainan, where Tu Tsong He Hanlin first added the tapioca pearls to cold tea. The jury is out.