An American entrepreneur is selling bubble tea made from Chinese cough syrup Pei Pa Koa – here’s where to try a Singapore version

Elton Keung, founder of bubble tea shop Labobatory, officially launched its new Cough Syrup Green Tea last Wednesday (Dec 12).
Facebook / Labobatory

Know what the latest trend in bubble tea flavours is? Apparently, it’s Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa cough syrup – yes, you read that right.

Also known as “pi pa gao” in Mandarin, the sweet dark-coloured syrup is a popular traditional Chinese herbal remedy to relieve sore throats and coughs.

Now, Labobatory, a little bubble tea shop in San Gabriel, California, is taking the Chinese remedy to a whole new level.

The bubble tea – or as Americans call it, boba tea – house officially launched its new Cough Syrup Green Tea last Wednesday (Dec 12) as part of its holiday menu for the Christmas season.

Priced at US$5.00 (S$6.87) or US$5.25 with honey pearls (boba), the drink is a concoction of honey, green tea, and a dose of “pi pa gao”.

Facebook / Labobatory

Labobatory wrote in a post on its Facebook page: “We strive to create unique concoctions that blend premium traditional ingredients and modern twists on ingredients new and old.”

Elton Keung, founder of Labobatory, told Business Insider in an email interview that he first tried the cough syrup when he was nine years old, when he was living in Hong Kong. Like many Chinese parents, Keung’s mother would feed him the syrup whenever he fell ill.

Elton Keung and his mother.
Elton Keung

The moment he tried it, he was hooked.

“I absolutely loved the flavour. I used to lick the spoon clean because it was so good,” Keung said.

Unlike cough syrup made by pharmaceuticals, Pei Pa Koa is made up of herbal ingredients such as fritillary bulb, loquat leaf, pomelo peel, ginger, licorice root, menthol, honey and a myriad of others.

According to The Straits Times, Pei Pa Koa has its origins in the Qing Dynasty, more than 400 years ago. It was developed by a physician who sought to treat the mother of a provincial commander who suffered from chronic cough.

Keung’s idea to create a Pei Pa Koa drink wasn’t as sudden as it seems.

He said: “This drink has been on our secret menu since the inception of the store.

“It took a couple tries to get the perfect ratio between the raw honey and Pei Pa Koa… It’s probably the only cough syrup I would put into a drink.”

In less than a week since its launch, he’s sold over 100 cups of his self-created cough syrup drink.

“Some people are skeptical at first, but (then become) surprised by how much they like it.

“People that enjoy Pei Pa Koa have no problem envisioning the flavour and they can appreciate its soothing menthol feeling throughout the entire drink.”

Plus, the tea is a good drink option when you’re sick.

According to the entrepreneur, Pei Pa Koa is a common sight at most Chinese supermarkets in the US. Labobatory gets theirs from a 99 Ranch Market just down the street.

You can try it in Singapore too

There’s good news for Singaporeans who want to try Pei Pa Koa bubble tea – Labobatory isn’t the first company to create this.

In fact, it’s been around in Singapore for quite some time.

Bubble tea shop Woobbee has a version called the Herbal Mint Milk Tea.

The brand has three outlets around Singapore: Chinatown Point, Shaw Tower, and Tanjong Pagar Plaza.

Priced between S$4.10 and S$5.80, Woobbee’s version is made with black tea and comes with one free topping. The store even has a lactose-free (non-milk) version of the beverage, which is apparently only 150 calories per serving.

Boba cocktails

And cough syrup is not all that Labobatory has experimented with. In fact, the shop – which employs eight staff – seems to be in the business of inventing unconventional bubble tea.

Apart from making Pei Pa Koa bubble tea, Keung told Business Insider that his team is currently in the process of creating a tofu ginger drink that tastes like tofu pudding, otherwise known to Singaporeans and Malaysians know as tau huay.

Oh, and the founder also makes alcoholic boba cocktails.

Keung hosts boba cocktail pop-ups in bars owned by other companies.
Elton Keung

“I was at a boba shop back in 2011 with my college roommate. We had just turned 21 and we were wondering why we weren’t at a bar instead. That’s the night the idea of alcoholic boba was born.”

Keung serves these alcohol-based boba drinks at pop-up events he holds in bars.

Although Keung’s bubble tea house in San Gabriel hasn’t succeeded in getting a liquor license, he says he will try applying for it next year. Perhaps then, alcohol-based boba concoctions can become fixed options on the Labobatory menu.

The ambitious entrepreneur also has plans to start up his very own bar in LA serving boba cocktails, once he has enough funds to do so. “That day will soon come,” he said.

And did you know that you can have alcoholic boba drinks in Singapore as well? Just like the Pei Pa Koa bubble tea, it’s been around for quite a while.

The Local Box, located along 8 Enggor Street, serves alcoholic pearl drinks such as Nutella Baileys Milk Tea (S$11.50 with pearls) and Taro Tequila Milk Tea ($12.50 with pearls).

The Local Box’s online menu.
The Local Box

With the bubble tea and boba trend gaining popularity all over the world, it’s not surprising that drink stores are taking it up a notch with unorthodox concoctions.

What’s next? Chardonnay with pearls? We won’t be surprised.

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