On some nights, I wish Central London had an alternative evening-drink locale to the stinky pub (featuring sticky floors and faded upholstery) or the flashy bar (featuring ladies of the night). You know, a nice place where you can just kick back with friends, dress casually, and not be surrounded by bodies pressing into you with their lager-breath or women's voices getting screechier as the alcohol absorption increases. (Admit it, sometimes we all want an alternative to that sort of evening!)
In many Asian cities, this 'alternative' is actually a well-developed genre, and there are hosts of coffee chains, local tea shops and ice-cream parlours staying open late (even well past midnight on weekends), offering young people a relaxed, civilised place to get out of the house. One such place is the bubble tea café.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and is named for the bubbles that develop on the surface when shaken. It comes in black or fruit tea combos and can feature plump tapioca pearls at the bottom of the cup, slurped up through wide straws. For me, bubble tea means shopping in a hot tropical climate and stopping for some cool refreshment, or hanging out with friends after a movie with no one getting drunk around you.
This is why I was especially pleased to be invited to the launch of Bubbleology, a new bubble tea café in Soho. Co-founder, Assad Khan, worked in a New York City investment bank for a few years before returning to the UK. Along with that infectious NYC enthusiasm for commerce, he brought back with him the idea for a chain of bubble tea cafés. Aware of the drink's Taiwanese origins, he approached that country's representation to the UK and was soon dispatched to Taipei, where he learned how to make bubble tea from the masters and identified the best suppliers for the specialist equipment he needed. Back in London, he approached Dan Einzig, designer of the successful chain of young, fun and family-friendly Giraffe restaurants. Not having cash to give him upfront, Assad offered Dan Einzig an equity stake in the idea (the two later brought in angel investors). All in all, from putting the idea in motion to opening the first café in Soho, the process took just 10 months. I don't think anyone can fail to be impressed by that.
Samples of milk and fruit teas
Frangelico and I tasted a selection of the teas on offer: Plain Assam, Plain Jasmine, Green Apple, Green Tea, Coconut, and Taro (yam). In Singapore, I was used to drinking just the iced black teas with milk and pearls. That's still my favourite - the Plain Assam was truly a beautiful milky tea, better than any bubble tea I've had in Singapore. The Coconut and Taro were delicious too. The Taro had a beautiful added dimension of pandan leaf, so that it felt like you were drinking a liquid version of Bengawan Solo's lapis sagu (a sweet, glutinous, layered cake made with coconut milk and essence of pandan).
The Bubbleologist can stipulate the exact amount of fruit sugar to add
Depending on the choice, powdered flavours might go in next
It goes 'shake shake' in the machine
Into the sealing apparatus
Assad demonstrating proof of seal
Late-night alternatives to drinking seem to be gaining traction in London. Just in Soho, you have Gelupo Gelato, Snog frozen yoghurt and Crêpe Affaire. I'm hoping Bubbleology gains a following like the others, because I want my bubble tea. I'm also hoping that they're so successful that they multiply quickly around the city, because, on some nights, it might be nice to walk to somewhere closer than Soho...
It's all about the science