Pouring the liquid into my plastic cup, it’s thick, and creamy, and steamy. “The locals still call it ‘pearl tea,’” culinary guide Ai-Jia Yu tells me, adding, somewhat mysteriously, and without further explanation, “they also call it Kung Fu tea—but not the martial art.” Soon enough, the small balls of silicone rise to the surface, and as the ice melts in my cup and the tea rapidly cools, I get ready to tip back a glass of bubble tea, in its very birthplace.
I am no stranger to bubble tea. Attending school in Montreal, I made frequent trips to the city’s one-street Chinatown and a small, very unpretentious restaurant there (I once saw a mouse scurry across the dining room) became a Friday night mainstay for me. My friends raved about this peculiar beverage but, a small-town kid, at first I couldn’t understand the allure—cold tea, sucked through a giant straw, big enough to inhale those chewy, mostly tasteless gobs of silicone. But eventually, when my workload at university got heavy, it became my comfort drink (and food).