Will Bubble Tea Translate?

by Michael Wojtas

Those of us who don’t often make it to Chicago—let alone the other side of the globe—may be unaware of this colorful drink. Peoria’s curiosiTea aims to change that.

Upon entering the small café, you might be a bit curious about the customers eagerly sipping away at brightly colored drinks swarming with dark spheres. These mysterious masses are no accident—they are what keep customers flowing through the doors of curiosiTea to enjoy the drink known as bubble tea.

This sweet concoction of ice, milk, and either fresh fruit or flavored powder has been a cultural phenomenon in Asia for nearly two decades, and its popularity has gradually spread throughout the world. But what tends to grab most people’s attention is the ingredient that provides its name: the tapioca bubbles. Bubble tea is typically served with a notably wide straw to accommodate the tapioca, which are about the same size and consistency as Gummi bears.

Last year, Monica Li opened the doors of curiosiTea, the only shop in the area devoted to the sweet drink, at The Shoppes at Grand Prairie. In April, it expanded to include a sushi and salad bar, but its focus remains on the tea that is its namesake. But why devote a café to a drink that many Peoria natives have never even heard of?

Curious Customers
“There’s nothing in Peoria like it,” says Li, who believes that the local lack of familiarity is no problem for curiosiTea. Customers are drawn to the shop because of the drink’s novelty, she says, and it was this alluring uniqueness that provided the business its initial spark last summer.

She estimates that nearly three of four customers have never tasted the drink before entering the café, and credits word of mouth for its early success. “We offered bubble tea at Taste of Bradley,” she explains, referring to the annual event at which local restaurants provide food and drink samples to new arrivals at the university. “The students didn’t know anything about the drink, but ever since, we’ve had customers coming in from the college.” She adds that she is thrilled “to have young kids and people who want to try new things hanging around.”

Many customers wander into the café to satisfy their own curiosity, while expanding numbers of locals are picking up her affinity for the drink. “More people [now] know about bubble tea, and they’ve started talking about it,” says Li. These customers have typically tasted the drink in Chicago, where Li herself quenched her bubble tea cravings before opening the business. “They love bubble tea and are so excited to see a store in Peoria,” she says.

A variety of bubble tea flavors are available at curiosiTea, including:
Coffee Mocha
Green Tea
Peach Tea

Mixing Cultural Flavors
Tapioca pearls, which account for the tea’s unique texture, can seem formidable to the uninitiated, but curiosiTea has sought to accommodate potentially wary Peorians while maintaining the drink’s distinctive qualities.

“In the original way, a lot of tapioca is used in the drink,” Li explains, referring to the bubble tea she sipped as a teen. “In this market, people just want to try the drink. If they ask for more [tapioca], we can do that, but we don’t want to scare them away!” she laughs.

Many locals come into the shop expecting a healthy treat, and curiosiTea caters to them by focusing on the “smoothie-like,” fruit-filled and caffeine-free version of the drink. Li calls the interest in fresh fruit bubble tea “more of an American thing,” which differs from the original Asian version that focuses just on the taste.

While Peorians tend to go for the “fresh and healthy” fruit version of the drink, bubble tea is offered in flavors such as chocolate and mocha as well. Caffeinated green tea, black tea and coffee variants were the first to gain popularity and are still preferred in most Asian markets. Fruit-flavored powders, of which there are dozens, are typically mixed into caffeinated drinks. Li cites honeydew melon as a personal favorite.

The Buzz about Bubble Tea
The international profusion of bubble tea cafés may produce head-scratching reactions from Americans who find the drink’s contents to be a tad unusual. For those puzzling over its popularity, a brief primer is in order.

The exact origins of bubble tea are still a matter of debate, as dueling Taiwanese tea houses both claim to have invented it in the mid-1980s. Easier to trace is the drink’s route to worldwide notoriety.

Bubble tea was not an immediate hit with the public, probably because of its unique texture, but it eventually became a favorite of Japanese businessmen visiting Taiwan. In the early 1990s, the drink was featured on a Japanese television program which unexpectedly boosted its international profile. Its popularity then spread throughout Southeast Asia, from China and South Korea to Thailand and the Philippines. It remains a favorite in Taiwan, which is home to one chain that has accumulated 450 cafés worldwide.

After claiming fans across Asia, bubble tea migrated to Europe and then Canada. From there, it was a quick journey to New York City’s Chinatown, where it was greeted by eager consumers who were already familiar with the drink. Before long, bubble tea shops were popping up all over the Big Apple. Across the country, Californians caught wind of the drink, and it remains a West Coast staple. By the turn of the century, bubble tea cafés had sprung up in Los Angeles, Seattle, Vancouver and Toronto. Peru, New Zealand and Australia have all welcomed the tapioca drink, and today, bubble tea shops continue to expand into new markets.

As Monica Li suggested, bubble tea’s increasing popularity might owe something to its adaptability. Because it comes in so many variations, each culture that is introduced to it tends to enjoy the tea in its own way.

Li believes that her café offers something that most area residents haven’t experienced, bringing “cultural flavor” to central Illinois. She thinks of curiosiTea as a sort of “international store,” that reminds locals that “Peoria is full of people from other nations.” a&s