American coffee and tea culture has seen many trends come and go in years’ past with a couple of hot items making a lasting impression. While Vietnamese coffee has made its way across the globe, bubble tea is often seen as a game changer in the tea world. Like the game of telephone, however, some things just get lost in translation.
Vietnamese iced or hot coffee (ca phe da/nong) or Vietnamese iced or hot coffee with milk (ca phe sua da/nong) made its journey originally from France, when in the 19th century French colonists introduced Vietnam to the coffee bean, turning them into the second largest producer of coffee in the world today.
In countless coffee shops in Vietnam, dark and rich coffee is individually brewed in a small metal French drip filter, droplets slowly falling into a glass often containing a large amount of sweetened condensed milk waiting to be mixed and consumed over ice or with a douse of hot water for a little needed dilution. Surrounding this ritual, men (mainly) sit leisurely, enjoying each other’s company as the day slips by, or conducting business by taking part in careless chitchat establishing their relationship.
After the Vietnam War in 1975, mass immigration to the U.S. brought along Vietnamese-style coffee that has since slowly permeated throughout the nation and is now enjoyed by many. In America, though, coffee is often dripped in advance. Ordering one at a deli or restaurant can often be a fast process requiring just a quick mix of the ready-to-go condensed milk and coffee which is then poured into a cup and served. Not always a long and slow process, no extended conversations, no custom like the original, just immediate and straightforward, the American way.
Pearl milk tea or boba milk tea, also called bubble tea in the U.S., emerged in the 1980s in the tea shops of Taiwan. Although the actual creator of the drink is debatable, it is claimed that the sweet tea-based drink infused with fruit flavors and served with chewy tapioca pearls over ice, did not enjoy widespread appeal early on. Others claim the drink was made as a fun treat for children and teenagers. Presumably, it wasn’t until a Japanese television show featured the drink that it caught on, eventually becoming popular in East and Southeast Asia in the 1990s before catching on in Canada, throughout the U.S., and now even parts of the UK.
In May, traces of DEHP, a low-cost carcinogen and harmful industrial chemical plasticizer that can affect hormone balances, was found in juice syrups used in making bubble tea that were manufactured in Taiwan and exported. The Taiwanese government began a massive recall of the tainted food products and immediately notified the countries that may have been affected.
Canada, New Zealand, and the Philippines announced the names of the tainted food products in their countries. Three weeks after the Taiwanese recall, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was still testing products “to generate data upon which to make our own regulatory decisions,” said agency media representative Douglas Karas. A list of 52 contaminated products shipped to the U.S. and provided by Taiwanese health officials was not released to retailers and the public at that time. Distributors and retailers instead were left to regulate themselves and their products. This is the American way?
Today, the pearl milk tea craze is unlike any other tea trend with many shops specializing in just that. Enter any one of them and often an overwhelming amount of options are presented: several fruit options, blended options, served hot options, ones with different jellies instead of tapioca, ones with milk substitutes, and more. Each sealed with a cellophane wrapper so that it can be shaken up (creating tiny “bubbles” in the process) before a large straw pierces the top for some lighthearted consumption by those of all ages.