From Taiwan, a New Kind of Cuppa

Within the first five minutes of entering an Irish home, someone always says it.

Whether you’ve to take off your shoes as soon as you get in the hall door, whether there’s a coat rack or an umbrella bucket, whether you can tramp into the kitchen however the elements leave you, whoever you’re seeing will always ask you this, this one question.

It’s become a long-running joke, the most accurate snapshot of how we welcome one another into our homes.

You might be let say no once, or maybe twice, but you’ll usually end up saying yes in the end. It’s synonymous with welcome, it’s the greatest and most earnest invitation we offer one another. We roll our eyes because we do this to death. We all know the old joke, the old callback, but it’s ritual.

Will you have a cup of tea?

Ah yeah. Go on. You will.

Barry’s, Lyons, at the outskirts even PG Tips. Herbal if it happens to be rattling around.

Splash of milk, drop of milk, heap the milk in. Just show it the bag and a dash of cold water. Two sugars, actually. Wait, I’ve my own Splenda in my bag. Leave the bag in, and throw yours in when you’re done with it.

We all know someone who puts brown sauce in their tea. I knew a cluster of folks when I was growing up who’d drop a handful of raisins to the bottom of the mug and let them sit and soak until the tea was gone, then eat them with a spoon afterwards. (I know.)

There is a ceremonial tea culture in Ireland, but it is not a culture of thousand-year-old pots and rare dried leaves, not one of mystery and silence, or patience. Our tea culture is a bringing-together of things, cups of hot tea to pour ourselves into, to share ourselves over. It’s us. It’s humble and without pomp or circumstance. Almost aggressively humble. It’s nothing fancy, which is why it is magic. Which is why it is quintessentially us.

However, in the close and stormy summer months, the heat out of a bitter cup of tea can get a little cloying for some. Iced tea is an uncommon demand, sure, you’d nearly go without it and wait until the air cooled down in the evening to go home for a cup of something strong.

But in George’s Street Arcade, there’s something sweet and cold brewing away, if you were to ever fancy stepping your tea game up a notch – or two. Or three.

I first discovered boba tea while living in San Francisco, and was baffled by the passion that eaters in the city had for it. Purple Kow out in the Richmond District drew half-hour long lines for their generous, squat plastic cups of the stuff.

Boba Guys in the Mission served theirs in mason jars with handles, and all of their teas were brewed before your eyes. Mitsu Tea House in Japantown served theirs with long straws swirled with a great, sweet cloud of candyfloss (and trust me, it was an Instagram field day). I was very particularly addicted to a Thai tea concoction, bright coral orange-pink, laced with sweetened condensed milk.

Fat, sweet tapioca pearls sit at the bottom of a tall plastic cup. Ice-cold milk tea and flavoured syrup fills the rest to the top. No Barry’s or Lyons here, think pale-green matcha, think purple taro, think avocado or lychee. Bright pastel concoctions over black, almost treacly buds.

The drink is sealed with a patterned film-top, usually by a machine. The straws required are chimney-thick compared to the spindly little numbers you’re used to when drinking to go.

Bubblicity, tucked away in the eclectic incubator of George’s Street Arcade, divides its trade between virtuous freshly squeezed vegetable and fruit juices, and sweet boba tea – or bubble tea. Karl Mulvee co-founded the business with Ronan Murphy almost four years ago, after spotting the unusual treat in London and deciding that the Irish needed to try it out.

Mulvee says their clientele are teens and folks who have travelled abroad and tasted boba there, and gone deliberately seeking it in Dublin. The shop is white and modern and playful – a free arcade cabinet table sits waiting to be played. Large paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. The stools, Mulvee tells me, are new. “The arses were literally worn out of the last set, we’d to replace them!”

Likely as a result of their origin in central Taiwan and popularity in many other Asian cultures, Bubblicity serves boba teas at Ireland’s anime and video-game conventions, Arcade Con and Eirtakon. Mulvee says many people order from them via Dublin food-delivery service Deliveroo – so the bright nook in George’s Street Arcade is just where their tea begins, not where it ends.

Bubblicity not only offers tapioca pearls, but candy-like popping jellies that burst with flavoured, sweet syrup. Their menu is a mix and match, a veritable mad-scientist’s lab of flavour and taste.

I ask the cheerful girl behind the counter what her favourite flavour is, and she suggests mango-passion-fruit with green tea and mango jellies. I say, “Go for it.” She potters around behind the counter pressing syrups and pouring mixtures, then hands me a cup with a pink floral top that I merrily pierce with a fat straw.

It tastes like the kind of thing my mother would have vehemently forbidden me from eating as a child: that special kind of sweetness that you know is going to wind up in hyperactivity. My favourite kind of sweetness.

The bubbles shoot up the straw in abundance, and have an almost plastic texture for a moment, until they’re popped between your teeth and release even more syrup. They’re unlike tapioca pearls, which are solidly chewy and have a darker sort of sweetness – but, luckily, patrons can mix and match the kinds of bubbles they’ll have in their tea. Flavours, additions – the menu is a liquid pick ‘n’ mix.

Boba tea is about as far from the cuppas we make at home as you can get, on the page. More often than not, it’s blue or green. It’s cold. The closest I ever was to tapioca pearls was the brief encounter I had with the folks who put raisins in their brew. (Absolutely traumatic.)

What’s important about it is that it’s a glimpse, or a taste, of another way to drink our tea. An alternative to coffee culture. The texture is different, the flavours are only underscored by that specific depth that tea always has, no matter the form it comes in.

On Saturday afternoons, the shop is crawling with patrons of all kinds, clamoring for different flavours, chatting brightly over their multicoloured brews poured over sugary pearls. This isn’t so far from the kitchen table after all – the ceremony has changed with just a splash more colour.

Author:

Sarah Maria Griffin: Sarah Griffin is a writer from Dublin. Her book of essays on emigration, Not Lost, is published by New Island Press and her forthcoming YA debut, Spare & Found Parts, will be released by Greenwillow Books (Harper Collins) in 2016. She tweets @griffski.

Reader responses

Log in to write a response.

The perfect gift for the inquisitive Dubliner

Give the gift of quality local journalism with a Dublin Inquirer gift subscription.

We use first-party cookies to allow visitors to log in to our website and read our articles.