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Biju Bubble Tea Lounge opened in Soho in Summer 2014 and have taken London bubble tea to a whole other level with an open bar, two tea espresso machines, cocktail shaking of drinks, all natural flavours and sweeteners and fresh organic milk. Highly recommended.
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Yao Yao Cha opened in June 2014 and have in my opinion the best drinks and tapioca pearls (boba) of all the London places. Open daily from 10 to 7 near Seven Dials, Covent Garden and Leicester Square, they have a more limited menu but quality is excellent and the staff are informed and engaging. Most ingredients are imported directly from Taiwan.
We’ve been drinking bubble tea or boba or pearl tea in London for a fair while now but the options are now growing. Like many, I first experienced the drinks in the U.S. At their best they can be a delicious fusion of drink and dessert (or a charming textural addition) but at their worst they can be cloyingly sweet and artificial. It’s not a traditional drink – although the Chinese have added tapioca balls to desserts forever.
Boba was first developed in Taiwan in the 1980s. The name comes from a Chinese slang term for large breasts, no-one really knows the connection – but the word resembles the English word ‘bubble’ phonetically. The boba or pearls are chewy tapioca balls added to the drink. Sometimes the texture is just right – soft and chewy, other times they can be a bit over firm. The drink is then made with or without milk and with various teas, fruit teas, fruit drinks, coffee or chocolate.
We had long searched for Taiwanese drinks in London such as the fabulous mu gwa niu nai (papaya milk) – and I mean decades of search. Boba started to appear in London Chinatown at a few places like Jen Café and H K Diner. Despite some seeing bubble tea as a current London trend, these places have been serving it for many years, these places served it in the last century!
Currently we’ve had an influx of new specialist bubble tea places. Some of these are London based and some, notably Chatime are franchises of Taiwanese cafes. Bubbleology has been around for a while but I’ve never been in, I might be wrong but I never was tempted in by the exterior – it seemed to lack the authenticity of some of the other places.. I was drawn back to bubble tea first by Cuppacha, and particularly their taro tea – I’m a sucker for taro. Cuppacha use leaf tea and as well as boba, also serve a variety of ‘exploding’ bubbles filled with flavoured liquids. I found Cuppacha pretty good, and at that time second only to Chatime for boba and drink quality.
Chatime are a Taiwanese café chain. They have 1000 outlets in 25 countries. A British Chinese businessman had the great idea to bring them to London and travelled to Taiwan, returning with the franchise. The first London store opened in Old Compton Street and I somehow managed to miss it. The Old Compton Street branch is still worth visiting as the queues are shorter than their other locations. I didn’t miss it when they opened a second café in Gerrard Street – famous for its long queues and fine drinks. Chatime’s genius is in the customisation of their drinks. As well as having a wide range of teas available, there is a great choice of toppings: a custard-like pudding, QQ jelly (Nata de Coco), red bean, boba (of course) and others. Even better the drinks can be customisable in terms of sugar content and ice volume (in the cold versions). The teas are good and the boba are superb – the best consistency of any in London – but you have to queue for them. In April 2013, Chatime opened their third café in the Brunswick Centre near Russell Square.
A recent discovery of ours have been Mooboo in Camden and Soho. The flavours are lighter and the boba not quite as good as Chatime and Cuppacha to my taste but the teas are of high quality and loose leaf. It’s a different boba experience and an enjoyable one.
Just recently superb Chinatown based independent speciality coffeeshop Silhouette have been experimenting with serving boba in quality freshly brewed coffee.
One final story, Boba is called jan jue in Cantonese which as a language has many homophones. Jan jue sounds exactly like ‘real pig’. So when my Cantonese teacher was first taking her daughter to get her boba and she promised her jan jue, her daughter was excited but puzzled as to why she was getting a pig.
Biju Bubble Tea Lounge
45 Old Compton Street, London W1D 6HQ
Yao Yao Cha
24 Earlham Street, Covent Garden
Leicester Square/Seven Dials/Covent Garden
11 Old Compton Street, Soho
4 Gerrard Street, Chinatown
Brunswick Centre, Bloomsbury/Russell Square
Chinatown Indoor Market, Newport Court
23 Newport Court, Chinatown
84 Parkway, Camden
13 Moor Street, Soho
22 Wardour Street, Chinatown
4-8 Newport Place, Chinatown