Bubble tea shops are everywhere in Hong Kong. Near where I live, there are four peddling these sugary drinks along the same street, two of them next to each other! The beverage, which has found popularity beyond Asia, is usually served with chewy tapioca balls known as boba, a reference to the hefty bust of Hong Kong bombshell Amy Yip whose career was at its peak in the late 1980s and early 90s, the period when this diabetes-in-a-cup was created in Taiwan. Obviously, I’m not a fan. Apart from the teeth-melting sugar content and the profligate amount of single-use plastic in its packaging, it’s also a waste of perfectly good tea. I take my tea neat, even the harshest breakfast teas, and Earl Grey is about the only flavoured or scented tea I like – I don’t even like jasmine tea. It goes without saying that I enjoy Chinese tea without any additives, as do most. And yet, the Chinese haven’t always drunk their tea the way they do today: steeping whole tea leaves in near-boiling water without adding anything. This way of making and drinking tea is in fact rather recent. For about 800 years from the second century BC, tea leaves, which came in the form of compressed cakes, were “cooked” in a pot of water with ginger, scallions, jujubes, orange peel, mint leaves, and so on, to create a broth, and the ingredients eaten as one would a soup. During the Sui and Tang dynasties (581–907), tea leaves were pulverised into powder – its descendant is Japanese matcha – and compressed into blocks. When preparing tea, a suitable amount was broken off from a block and added to a pot of boiling water until the tea was ready to be served. It may seem unusual to most of us now, but tea-drinkers of the Tang period (618-907) added salt, something the Tibetans still do when making yak butter tea. The Song period (960–1279) saw a revolution in tea preparation. Instead of adding tea to boiling water and letting the mixture come to a second or third boil, the reverse was done: hot water was poured onto the powdered tea in a tea bowl. The mixture was then vigorously stirred with a bamboo whisk until it becomes a thick, frothy beverage. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this way of making tea forms the basis of the Japanese tea ceremony. After finding its way from Song-period China, what was intended as a way of enjoying a relaxing cuppa ossified over the centuries into a ritualistic performance with its own paraphernalia and cultural references. The modern way of brewing Chinese tea became popular quite late in history. Some trace it back to the year 1391, when Emperor Taizu, of the Ming dynasty, decreed that teas sent to the capital as tribute would no longer arrive in compressed cakes but in loose-leaf form, thus paving the way for the method of pouring hot water into a cup or pot of loose tea leaves, and sipping the infusion as it was. While this manner of making and drinking tea might have existed before then, it went on to become the norm. The ancient ways have not died out though. The earlier teas with various additives survive in other forms, such as the babaocha, or “eight treasures tea”, and of course the liquid confection known as bubble tea, with its boba, jellies, beans, even cheese, and of course lashings of sugar.