Enjoying the wonders of milk tea in Shanghai

Sarah Markmann
A foreign student recounts her experiences with milk tea in Shanghai and introducing the treat to friends.
Sarah Markmann
Enjoying the wonders of milk tea in Shanghai
Rachel Yu

Illustration by Rachel Yu

My fondest memory of milk tea was when I took two of my Danish friends to a local fruit vendor near my house. Naturally, my friends did not know what to order as they were visiting from Denmark and had never been to this shop before. They didn't seem to mind that I was ordering for them. But little did they know there would be some surprise toppings in their drinks. I had ordered them a mango smoothie topped with boba (波霸), which is made from tapioca starch.

My friend Sara-Sofie took a sip and didn't love the drink, but at the same time, she didn't hate it. I recall her saying "why do I have to eat my drink? That's not right." Her brother Sebastian had a similar reaction, as he gave a confused look after taking his first sip. He was shocked to say the least, explaining, "why are there Lego blocks in my drink!?" We all laughed hysterically.

This showed me that when you are not familiar with something, it can take time for it to grow on you. I am a believer that boba is an acquired taste if you are not familiar with its taste and texture.

Milk tea, which originated in Hong Kong, has quickly gained popularity all around the world. These drinks are constantly evolving and coming out with new twists. Plain milk tea is a combination of tea, milk and sugar as the sweetener. Some of the more exotic drinks I have seen in Shanghai include grape with extra pulp, Oreo boba milk tea, milk tea with coconut jelly, caramel milk tea with grass jelly, and milk tea with cheese foam.

I wish I had an interesting order, as you can customize your order to create elaborate drinks; but unfortunately, my go-to order for the past six years has been "冰奶茶,三分糖,正常冰,不要珍珠", meaning an iced milk tea with light sugar, ice and no toppings. My friends always laugh at me for my "childish drink." Most of them get boba in their milk tea, but I've never liked it much. Maybe it's because I don't like my drinks to be overpoweringly sweet.

From Yi Dian Dian, to Yifang, to HeyTea, to CoCo, I have been to my fair share of milk tea establishments. And apps like WeChat have only made it quicker and easier for people to get their milk tea delivered right to their doorstep.

A couple of months ago I was craving milk tea and walked over to the Yi Dian Dian closest to my home. As I was waiting to order, a young girl approached me and we started chatting. She had told me about her dad selling street food just around the corner, and that she goes to a Chinese school nearby. The little girl asked me what my drink order was, and I told her I just get plain milk tea. She was surprised that I didn't want any toppings or flavoring to my drink because she loved getting complex drinks that had a bunch of toppings. She made me realize that I associate having milk tea with being with others and socializing, and I was so happy to chat with her.

Milk tea is my most cherished drink when I am in Shanghai and is the one that I crave the most when I am away from home. Luckily for me, places like Yifang and CoCo have expanded to the US and elsewhere.

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