Saturday 15 February 2020

The Japanese Bubble Tea Boom: Explaining the Tapioca Tea Craze

Food & Drink may be the most popular tab in this blog - 46 posts to date - but the beverage I'm going to introduce today must be the only one with it's own verb: tapiru. While most older Japanese will have no idea what this means, it was voted by Japan's trend setters - junior high-school (joshi chūgakusei=JC) and high-school girls (joshi kōsei=JK) - as the word of the year in 2018 and was one of the buzzwords of 2019 last year. "Tapi" refers to tapioca while the "ru" is the typical verb ending in Japan; youngsters wanting to grab a tapioca drink might say tapiritai while the activity itself - usually involving taking photogenic pictures good enough to put up on Instagram, a practice known as insta-bae (インスタ映え) - is called tapi-katsu (タピ活) or tapioca-life.

The existence of these words is a reflection of just how massive a social phenomenon the bubble tea industry has become in Japan. While it has only truly exploded in the last few years, the popularity of tapioca pearls has been growing since the early nineties when tapioca coconut milk (タピオカココナッツミルク) dessert became a big hit. This was the first tapioca wave: the second wave (2008) saw the arrival of tapioca tea from Taiwan while the third and most recent wave (2018) is characterised by diversification of blends and flavours led by Taiwanese store Chun Shui Tang (春水堂) and the establishment of Daikanyama (代官山) in Shibuya as a bubble-tea mecca. The boom shows no sign of abating: the July 2019 Taiwan Food Festival held in Yoyogi Park last July, boasting a Tapioca Street, attracted an incredible 150,000 people over two days and tapioca drinks can now be bought not only in speciality shops but also convenience stores and family restaurants. 

Wanting to find out what the fuss was all about, I press-ganged my JK daughter and went to Gong Cha, one of the biggest and most famous Taiwanese tea cafes with 1300 branches worldwide. Ordering itself is quite an ordeal in itself (at least for this old codger): you have to choose (1) size and type of tea (jasmine green, oolong, and black are the staples) either hot or iced, (2) sweetness (amount of syrup), (3) amount of ice (if you chose iced), and (4) up to three toppings (which as well as the obligatory tapioca pearls, also include milk foam, aloe, nata de coco=coconut gel, basil seeds, and grass jelly).

I ordered medium hot jasmine-green tea with just a little syrup and pearls and milk foam for topping (I think) and joined the pick up queue, much like Starbucks. Ordering hot is not very cool apparently because the cup is not transparent thereby losing the chance for a good instammagrable snap showing the black tapioca balls floating in the bottom of the tea. The jasmine/green-tea blend was quite refreshing and the chewiness of the pearls rather unique at first though after sucking up what seemed like a never-ending stream of the things I was feeling quite full and wishing I had ordered a small size. Part of the reason for this may be that tapioca has a negative image for generations of British school children: tapioca pudding ("frog spawn") was a school lunch staple that has been named Britain's most hated school pudding. The Japanese, on the other hand, seem quite enamoured by the chewiness (described as mochimochi-kan in Japanese) which is perhaps not surprising given that the texture is very similar to that other popular Japanese jaw-breaker, mochi or rice-cake, which I covered only very recently in this blog.

But be warned, there's a darker side to the bubble tea boom. A Chinese teenager addicted to the drink was apparently rushed in agony to hospital where they found more than 100 bubble tea pearls stuck to her digestive tract! See here for a Japanese article and here for a short video with some scary x-ray pics. The moral here: chew your tapioca balls slowly if you want to avoid constipation and hospitalisation!