What’s got chewy, marble-size balls, tastes like ice milk tea and gets sucked through a big, fat straw? The answer is pearl tea — a wacky and tasty snack-in-a-beverage from Taiwan now being served in Tokyo.
|A shop clerk makes a cup of pearl coconut tapioca milk tea at Pearl Tea Taiwan in Shimbashi, Tokyo.|
Also known as boba tea, bubble tea and its original Mandarin name “zhenzhu naicha,” pearl tea is an Eastern holdout against the West’s encroaching espresso bar.
Typically served in a clear plastic cup, the richest of the pearl teas is a concoction of black tea, coconut milk, ice and a bunch of dark, rubbery, tapioca-style pearls in light caramel syrup sitting in plain sight near the bottom. The gelatinous pearls themselves are made from a sweet potato powder and sugar base.
But that’s just the ingredients. As any pearl tea devotee will attest, half the fun is the imbibing — using the oversize straw to suck up, one by one, the slick little balls. It’s a strange taste sensation that some find addictive.
“It’s something about the chewiness, and the way the balls shoot up the straw and bounce off the back of my mouth,” said 20-year-old university student Wakiko Ota. “I love it.”
Akira Umeda, a 30-year-old company employee and recent convert, has some advice for first-timers. “Remember, you have to chew those pearls first before swallowing them.”
Although it’s all the rage in Taiwan and Hong Kong — as well as in North American cities with large Chinese populations such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Vancouver, British Columbia — pearl tea has been slow to debut in Japan.
This is odd considering the recent surge in interest in Taiwan as a travel destination and in its cultural exports, ranging from pop diva Coco Lee to “xiao long bao” dumplings.
But the wait is over. The place to go for the authentic pearl tea experience is a new Taiwan-style teahouse chain aptly named Pearl Tea Taiwan. The first and currently only outlet opened recently in Tokyo’s Minato Ward, not far from JR Shimbashi Station.
The cozy shop faithfully re-creates the atmosphere of any tea stand you would find in one of Taipei’s lively and colorful night markets.
Also, instead of just snapping lids on the cups, employees use a special machine that individually seals the top of each cup with a plastic cover — a de rigueur gadget even at the most humble tea stall in Taipei.
Pearl Tea Taiwan is being run by a planned seven-story Taiwanese restaurant in the heart of Ginza called Taiwan Seafood that is set to open before the end of the year.
According to representative Shoji Takii, the secret of Pearl Tea’s runaway popularity among nearby office workers lies in the ingredients, which are all imported directly from Taiwan.
“A variety of tapioca-style drinks are now being sold in Japan, but we believe our pearl tea is the first of its kind available here,” Takii said.
But the exact mixture of tea, milk and flavors is a closely guarded secret. “The recipe, which was painstakingly prepared by a Taiwanese chef, re-creates the traditional taste of pearl tea,” he said.
Besides the classic pearl milk tea priced at 250 yen a cup, the shop also offers a few exotic variations, such as pearl coconut tapioca milk tea, which contains the small white pearls most people know from tapioca pudding as well as a mysterious “Love Jelly.”
Since opening its doors in August, the Shimbashi flagship outlet has seen a steady growth in customers, many of them repeaters. “Up to 350 people a day have been stopping by for drinks,” Takii said, noting sales of the summer drink have dropped off slightly with the arrival of fall.
However, an assortment of hot tapioca drinks is to be introduced to the menu soon for those who prefer to slurp leisurely on a hot beverage.
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