By SOL VANZI
Images by NOEL PABALATE
Tea has long been a part of the Filipino life, and was enjoyed by our forefathers long before conquistadores planted the Spanish flag and claimed our islands in the name of the Spanish crown. I grew up drinking hot tea with sugar and milk. Condensed milk, in cans, was preferred in the days before homes had refrigerators.
During the Christmas season, however, the hot tea served in pop-up bibingka and puto bumbong stalls used leaves of pandan, avocado, mango, and tsaang-gubat. This herbal tea, served only from midnight to dawn to church-goers, was consumed hot and plain. No sugar or milk was added.
In hot summer months, the refreshing drink of choice was gulaman (gelatin cubes) and sago (tapioca pearls) in iced water sweetened with brown sugar (panocha) syrup accented with dashes of lemon essence or vanilla. Tiny sago pearls and brown sugar syrup also flavored the healthy snack taho (silk tofu) peddled by ambulant vendors all over the streets of the city.
In the 1980s, these drinks were combined by imaginative Taiwanese entrepreneurs and marketed as milk tea, an instant success that has successfully caught fire in many cities, including Manila. Today, milk tea parlors are everywhere — malls, gasoline stations, schools, and food courts. I discovered the Pinoys’ almost fanatic attraction to milk tea at the opening of the 40th branch of Macao Imperial Tea on Square 2 at the Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan recently.
Around 200 smartly dressed, gadget using young people had lined up hours before the mid-morning ribbon-cutting ceremonies. They ranged in age from eight to mid-20s, and were comparing notes on the specials of the other milk tea chains they had patronized. Everyone had cell phones ready to take photos to post on Instagram and Facebook.
Macao Imperial Tea’s phenomenal success in the highly competitive and crowded field is proof that perseverance and delivery of high-quality products are crucial in any business. Establishing 40 outlets in Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao within a short span of two years is unheard of in the food industry, but the brand did the impossible. No wonder there are more than 300 Macao Imperial Tea stores worldwide.
Young businessman Avin Ong brought the Macao Imperial Tea franchise to the Philippines and opened his first outlet in 2017. Other stalls followed in rapid succession, encouraged by the increase in loyal patrons who promoted the brand by word of mouth.
Enticing repeat visits are 61 different varieties of drinks including milk tea, soda, coffee, chocolate, and nine add-ons. We enjoyed the bestseller Cream Cheese with Oreo, as well as the Cheese Cake Milk Tea With Pearls. The drinks were not too sweet, and the blend of flavors satisfied our sweet tooth.
All the ingredients used are imported from Macao to maintain the highest quality, Ong divulged.
The menu is identical to the original in Macau, with a few changes like the inclusion of Americano, cappuccino, and a line of Mpresso or espresso-based drinks. Not to be missed is For You, Macao Imperial Tea’s version of an iced caramel macchiato. It comes in a reusable tumbler with cute mouse ears. Sweethearts usually order it with the matching For Me, which is an iced strawberry milk tea. Bring your bear tumbler when ordering to get 10 percent off on your next For You and For Me drinks.
Macao Imperial Tea also serves hot drinks, such as The Kitten Milk Tea and Ginger Milk Tea. And for hot summer days, there are colorful cooling sodas made picture-perfect: Over the Rainbow Soda and Blue Curacao.
Matching their wide selection of drinks are moist and rich cakes which change according to season.
I can hardly wait for a Macao Imperial Tea stall to open in my Malate neighborhood.