By: J.T. Oldfield
July 6, 2015
Ethnic Seattle – Bubble tea is a great alternative to highly caffeinated iced coffee or heavy ice cream. It’s a treat that leaves customers satisfied but not bogged down with richness. The caffeine in the green or black teas is less than that of similar amounts of coffee. And refreshing on a hot summer day!
The origins of the world’s beloved foods are often in question. Try googling the Reuben sandwich, for example, and you’ll find creation stories from Omaha and New York City. Bubble Tea, which has been slowly growing in popularity around the U.S. over the last two decades, is no exception.
Bubble tea aficionados generally agree that the beverage was first consumed in Taiwan in the 1980s. Most people point to Lin Hsiu Hui, who says that she first combined the tapioca-based Chinese dessert fen yuan with cold tea during a business meeting. Others claim that Tu Tsong-he, also of Taiwan, is the drink’s creator.
Like peanut butter and jelly, rice and beans, or ham and pineapple, these two disparate ingredients became an instant classic. The drink spread to neighboring Asian countries and then to the U.S. The first bubble tea stores opened on college campuses and cities with large Asian populations like San Francisco. In Seattle, Ambrosia Café, Gossip Espresso & Tea, Oasis Tea and have been going strong since 1997, 2000, and 2001, respectively.
The word spread and now you’ll find an assortment of customers slurping tea and tapioca through wide, colorful straws. It’s still very popular with young people, who find it a cool, modern alternative to American coffee shop offerings. With bright colors and popular music, there’s a bit of a joie de vivre to most bubble tea joints. They are places to get out of the heat and have fun with friends.
The soft and chewy tapioca pearls are different from most American desserts. They don’t melt in your mouth like chocolate or ice cream. The pearls are not even like the tapioca of tapioca pudding, but are commonly made of sweet potato flour (tapioca as most Americans know it is made from the South American cassava root). They bring a harmonious flavor to the tea.
Many bubble tea drinkers assume that the name comes from the tapioca pearls, but it’s actual named for the bubbles that form when the tea is made. The tea is shaken in a drink shaker (though some people prefer to stir it), resulting in a thick foam of bubbles.
Since reaching the U.S., the types of bubble tea also widened. It is common to find slushes or ice cream in American bubble tea establishments alongside the more traditional—if you can use such a word for something created in the 1980s—teas and milk teas. So too, flavors range from taro and chrysanthemum to the American-friendly blueberry and peppermint.
Places to find Bubble Tea in Seattle:
Oasis Tea Zone
Serving up bubble tea since 2001, Oasis Tea has expanded to three locations, including one on the Eastside. While they serve tea in traditional Japanese or Hong Kong styles, they also include more American-friendly slushes and snows. Their wide-range of flavors include everything from honey chrysanthemum and soy barley green to peach and peppermint.
International District: 519 6th Avenue S
University District: 4508 University Way NE
Renton: 501 S. Grady Way
A stateside outcrop of the famed Taiwanese chain, Sharetea has been wowing University of Washington students since it opened earlier this year. Customers can increase or decrease the level of sweetness in their bubble tea.
University District: 1100 NE 45th St
Pearl’s Tea & Coffee
Pearl’s Tea & Coffee boasts a funky and relaxing atmosphere, good food, and ice-cold bubble tea. Besides the standard flavors, customers will also find unique combinations under the “favorites” menu. Their food menu includes Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and crêpes.
West Seattle: 4800 Delridge Way SW
Gossip Espresso & Tea
Besides tapioca pearls, customers can add sago, egg pudding, or a variety of jellies to their tea at Gossip Espresso & Tea. Check out the grass jelly! Snacks on hand include yam fries, and desserts from local bakeries.
International District: 651 S King St
Around since 1997, this is International District favorite never disappoints. Try the pudding and tea for something a little bit different or a Jasmine milk tea for a more traditional beverage. If you have any doubts, check out their Twitter feed (@AmbrosiaSeattle); it’s full pictures of ice-cold bubble teas.
International District: 619 S. King St
Another newcomer, Young Tea in the International District focuses on healthier teas. You won’t find cloyingly sweet artificial syrups here. They stick to the pure thing, which also means that you can really taste the tea!
International District: 609 S Weller St