Ice cold drink with pearl (tapioca) balls is nothing new in the Philippines. It’s been around for ages. When I was a schoolgirl, tapioca balls — or sago, as they were simply called back then — were sold by the glass with ice water flavored with arnibal (melted sugar) and, sometimes, with diced gulaman (gelatin) mixed in. Gulaman at sago, they were called. If the ice water wasn’t brownish and flavored with arnibal, it was milky white with gata (coconut milk). They’re still very much around — quite cheap when sold by ambulant vendors and often overpriced when served in restaurants. My husband swears that the best gulaman at sago drink can only be had at the Coop in U.P. Diliman. Funny, in all the years I studied in U.P., I never experienced the gulaman at sago at the Coop.
But gulaman at sago was not my daughters’ first introduction to pearl balls.
It was their Dad who introduced the girls to pearl shakes. In the mid-90s, Speedy discovered Orbitz, brought home some and the girls went ga-ga over flavored milk mixed with crushed ice and served with pearl (tapioca) balls. They came in oversized plastic cups with a hole in the domed cover to accommodate an equally oversized straw that was fat enough to allow the pearl balls to be sipped through it.
After Orbitz came Zagu. Thereafter, smaller and less known pearl shakes sellers would mushroom all over Metro Manila in pretty much the same way that billiard halls seemed to sprout overnight after Efren “Bata” Reyes became an international celebrity. Powdered flavorings could be bought just about anywhere — in the wet market, in the pricier supermarkets and even in some sari-sari stores.
Despite the girls’ addiction to pearl shakes, I never liked Orbitz nor Zagu. The artificial sweetener left an aftertaste that didn’t quite agree with my mouth. I wouldn’t develop a craving for pearl shakes until we discovered Quickly at the Tutuban Mall sometime during the late 1990s.
It was a hot and humid day and the girls wanted cold drinks. We couldn’t find an Orbitz or a Zagu stall but there was this stall with an unfamiliar name selling pearl shakes. We bought and we all got hooked. While Zagu and Orbitz offered the usual fruit flavors, Quickly offered more exotic blends. Mixing and matching was possible too. And if one got bored with pearl balls, nata de coco or pudding could be substituted.
Orbitz and Zagu became a thing of the past for the girls.
As far as I know, Quickly originated from Taiwan. Not only did it introduce new flavors without the over-the-top sweetness that I found so objectionable with Zagu and Orbitz, it also brought in new technology. No more domed covers with a hole on top. Quickly stalls had special machines that sealed the cups with a plastic sheet.
The bestseller at Quickly has always been the taro ice. It was Alex’s favorite (and mine too) for months until we realized we might be missing a lot by not trying other flavors. It was after graduating from taro ice that I discovered the wonderful combination of pudding (not bread pudding but a sweet and milky gelatin-like concoction with the texture of taho) and milk tea.
When I was in Taiwan last month, my eyes went wide at the seemingly endless varieties of bubble milk tea. I wanted to try them all, one after another, but I only have one stomach, so never mind. I don’t think all the flavors they have there would be popular in the Philippines though. Whatever. If I can’t enjoy them all in the Philippines, at least, there’s Quickly and that’s good enough for me.