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What is Bubble Tea (or Boba Tea)?

With its jewel-like tapioca pearls, iconic fat straws and a full rainbow of colour choices, bubble tea seems made for the Instagram generation. But in fact, this photogenic thirst-quencher has been around since the 1980s. It was first invented in Taiwan, and has been popular in many East Asian countries ever since, while in the West, it remained one of Chinatown’s tastiest secrets. 

If you’re new to bubble tea, or you just want to find out more, let Fine Dining Lovers be your guide to all things bubble tea leaf, from its origins, to different flavours and recipes to try at home.

Bubble tea - also known as boba tea, pearl milk tea and in its native Taiwan, as zhēnzhū nǎichá  - can refer to a wide variety of drinks. At its most basic, it is tea, milk, ice and tapioca bubbles, all shaken together like a cocktail. Over the decades, however, it has evolved to include different teas, milks, various colourful flavoured syrups, jellies and much more.

Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea was a combination of two already-popular culinary trends. Tapioca balls, or fenyuan, were a much-loved dessert topping. Their rubbery, chewy consistency is a much-prized quality in Taiwanese cuisine - there is no direct translation into English, so it is usually referred to as ‘Q’. Shaken milky tea was also a popular phenomenon, and tea shops were a popular sight in towns and cities throughout the country.

Who first thought to put fenyuan and milk tea together is disputed, and has even been the subject of a court case. According to one version of events, Lin Hsiu Hui, product manager at the Chun Shui Tang tea shop, tipped some fenyuan into her tea at a staff meeting in 1988, while entrepreneur Tu Tsong He claims to have come up with the idea after spotting some fenyuan in a market shortly after opening the Hanlin Tea Room in 1986. 

How it’s made

There are many different ingredients that go into the various types of bubble tea. It usually starts with tea, milk and ice, often with syrup flavourings and sugar, then the tapioca bubbles are added, sometimes with other additions such as fruit balls or brightly coloured jellies. The bubble tea is then shaken like a cocktail to make the bubbles float. It is served in a clear glass, with a fat straw to suck up the bubbles.

Bubble tea is super-customisable, and there are virtually endless possible combinations of ingredients. There are several classical types, however, all of which can be adapted in various ways.

Pearl Milk Tea (zhēnzhū nǎichá): 

Small tapioca bubbles are called ‘pearls’. This used to refer to only the tiniest of bubbles, at a twelfth of an inch or less, but is now usually used to describe anything up to a quarter of an inch in diameter. Pearl milk tea is a chilled milky tea drink containing smaller bubbles, or pearls.

Bubble Milk Tea (bōbà nǎichá):

Bubble teas in general are sometimes called ‘boba tea,’ but technically speaking, ‘boba’ specifically refers to the larger tapioca bubbles - anything over a quarter of an inch in diameter. These larger bubbles are named after 1980s Hong Kong sex symbol, Amy Yip, who was nicknamed ‘boba’, or ‘champion of breasts,’ in reference to her most famous assets. Milk tea containing larger bubbles, or tapioca boba, is known as bubble milk tea, or boba tea.

Black Pearl Milk Tea (hēi zhēnzhū nǎichá):

Black pearl milk tea is a variation on pearl milk tea, using black tapioca bubbles instead of white or coloured bubbles.

Foam Red Tea (pàomò hóngchá):

A less well-known type of tea, but still considered a classical type, foam red tea is simply a well-shaken black tea (referred to as red tea in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China), with lots of foamy air bubbles.

Foam Milk Tea (pàomò nǎichá): 

The same as foam red tea, with the addition of milk.

Tea Pearl (chá zhēnzhū):

A rare milk-free version of pearl milk tea or bubble milk tea.

There are countless different ways in which these classic types can be customised and adapted. Different teas, including fruit teas, can be used in place of the standard red or black, and alternative milks like soy, oat or almond can also be added to the mix. 

Popular variations in recent years include brown sugar tea, a highly Instagrammable marble-effect drink made from milky black pearl tea and brown sugar syrup. There are also bubble tea cocktails, bubble teas with egg custard pudding, and an ever-expanding selection of bubbles, with flavours ranging from the sweet and fruity to more unusual flavours like sea salt, cheese, mushroom, quinoa, tomato and Sichuan pepper.

Bubble tea variants

As well as the different types of bubble tea, there are a huge variety of different flavours, which are added to the bubble tea in liquid or powdered form, and often turn the liquid an attractive colour. 

There are also lots of different things you can add to your bubble tea, as well as the usual tapioca pearls or boba. Below is a list of some of the other goodies you can add to your drink alongside the tapioca bubbles:

Tapioca noodles - made from the same Q rich tapioca as the bubbles, these thin, chewy noodles are great for slurping up through your straw.

Popping boba - hollow boba that pop when chewed, releasing a burst of fruit syrup. These are particularly popular in fruit flavoured bubble teas.

Jelly - chewy jelly cubes are sometimes added for even more Q. The most popular types are grass jelly, which is made from Chinese mesona and has a sweet, herbal flavour, aloe jelly, and fruit jelly.

Taro Balls - chewy balls made from cooked taro root. They are often an attractive purple colour, and add extra sweetness and chew.

Sweet Potato Balls - similar to taro balls, but made from sweet potato and orange in colour.

Pudding - a creamy egg custard pudding added to the bottom of the bubble tea. These are usually flavoured, with popular choices including coffee and taro.

Fresh Fruit - another popular addition, especially in fruit teas.

Red Bean - also known as adzuki beans, red beans are a popular dessert topping in many East Asian countries. They have a sweet, creamy, earthy flavour, and can be added dried or stirred into the drink as a paste.

Cookie Crumbs - Oreos are particularly popular.

Ice Cream - can be mixed in, or used as a topper.

Cheese Cream - not to be confused with cream cheese. A savoury topping made from cream and cheese powder.

Three recipes to make at home

If you want to try making your own bubble tea at home, it’s actually pretty simple. Most of the ingredients are everyday items, and tapioca bubbles can be purchased from your local Asian supermarket or ordered online. 

For a classic bubble tea, we love this recipe from Healthy Nibbles and Bits. It has a simple, step-by-step guide, with advice on how to adapt the recipe to your own tastes.

If you prefer fruity flavours, this mango bubble tea from Recipe Marker is a tropical taste sensation, made with fresh mango and coconut milk.

Another fruity favourite, this honeydew melon bubble tea from Food is a Four Letter Word is a cool and refreshing treat, perfect for a hot summer’s day.

If you like your drinks with Instagram appeal, you’ll love the latest trend for lightbulb drinks - coming to a tea shop or smoothie bar near you soon.

While Boba Partea is all about fun drink toppings and photogenic treats, it takes its tea seriously. The local bubble tea shop has a specific method to make each component of its beverages. From the temperature the tea is brewed to how long the tapioca pearls are boiled, it takes precision to make the perfect cup of bubble tea.

The Taiwan-born bubble tea trend has taken Baton Rouge by storm over the last five years, as more tea shops than ever have been popping up around the city. In March 2020, Van Nguyen opened Boba Partea on O’Neal Lane. She wanted to make high-quality bubble tea drinks using authentic tea, fewer added sweeteners and unique drink toppings.

Boba Partea sells hot and iced herbal sugar syrup, milk tea, smoothies, coffee and sweet and savory baked goods. Fruit tea flavors include mango; peach; strawberry; passion fruit; rose garden; and pomegranate and strawberry.

Creating your own bubble tea beverage is like making a custom dessert. Customers can choose the level of sweetness, the type of tea and the amount of ice their drink contains. Any drink can be paired with toppings that include everything from classic black tapioca pearls to heart-shaped strawberry sweetheart jelly, which tastes like bite-sized strawberry Jell-o.

“Bubble tea has been trending in the United States lately, but has been popular in my country for decades,” Nguyen, a Vietnam native says. “You can mix boba with anything.”

The word “boba” can refer to either a broad category of chunky drinks — including everything from iced tea with tapioca pearls to fresh juice loaded with fruity bits — or black tapioca pearls themselves. Boba tea, bubble tea, and pearl milk tea — in Taiwan, zhenzhu naicha — are essentially different names for the same thing; the monikers differ by location, but also personal preference. (In the U.S., the East Coast favors bubble tea, while the West prefers boba.) Whatever you call it, in its most basic form, the drink consists of black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls, all shaken together like a martini and served with that famously fat straw to accommodate the marbles of tapioca that cluster at the bottom of the cup.

The pearls are made from tapioca starch, an extract of the South American cassava plant, which came to Taiwan from Brazil via Southeast Asia during the period of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945. Tapioca pearls start white, hard, and rather tasteless, and then are boiled inside huge, bubbling vats and steeped in sugary caramelized syrup for hours, until eventually they’re transformed into those black, springy tapioca pearls we’ve come to know and slurp.

It’s that addictive texture that’s become the boba signature. Known locally as Q or QQ (as in, very Q), the untranslatable bouncy, rubbery, chewy consistency is treasured in Taiwan. Look around and you’ll see the Q plastered prominently on food packaging and affixed to shop signs. It’s also key to the texture of mochi, fish balls, and noodles. Indeed, the quality of boba drinks is measured by how much Q power lurks within the tapioca pearls. Like the Italian notion of al dente, Q is difficult to master and hard to capture — boba with the right Q factor isn’t too soft or too bouncy, but has just the right amount of toothiness.

Prior to the 1980s, Q-rich tapioca balls were a common topping for desserts like the ubiquitous heaps of snow-like shaved ice found throughout Taiwan, while milk tea was already a favorite local drink. But the two weren’t combined until, as one version of the story goes, Liu Han Chieh began serving cold tea at his Taichung tea shop, Chun Shui Tang , sometime in the early ’80s. A few years later, the company’s product manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, plopped some tapioca balls into her iced tea at a staff meeting, and the rest, apparently, is beverage history. There are rival origin myths, too: One credits Hanlin Tea Room , a tea shop in Tainan. The one thing that everybody agrees upon is that the name “boba” is a reference to the 1980s Hong Kong sex symbol Amy Yip, whose nickname, “Boba,” is also a Chinese slang term for her most famous pair of physical assets.

Since its beginnings, the basic tapioca iced tea recipe has evolved into an entire genre of drinks. Milks can range from whole and skim to nondairy substitutes like almond and coconut — or often there’s no milk (or milk-like product) at all, as in the case of cold tea-infused or juice-based drinks. The pearls can be fat as marbles, small as peas, square-shaped, red, or even crystal clear. There are now more than 21,000 boba shops in Taiwan, with thousands more around the world — many belonging to successful international chains like CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice (都可), Gong Cha, and Sharetea. And while the term was once confined to tea shops, you’ll find throughout Taiwan that the boba trend is now being incorporated into desserts, sandwiches, cocktails, and even skincare. Wherever you are here, if you dig deep enough, you’ll eventually strike boba.

As the sheer number of boba options reaches critical mass, it’s hard for a boba slinger to stand out. The boba arms race escalated dramatically over the last decade — especially since Instagram started seeping into Taiwanese culture — and a new breed of shop has begun offering more elaborate drinks with outrageous flavors and virality-primed color combinations. And as neighboring China grows its role on the global stage and aims to erode Taiwan’s international influence, Taiwan’s boba shops are fast becoming unofficial embassies for cultural outreach. Boba diplomacy, in all its permutations, is helping the world better understand Taiwanese culture and cuisine. But first, you have to understand boba — in all of its 2019 cheese-topped, charcoal-stained, fruit-filled glory. Here, then, is a detailed boba breakdown, as well as all the best places in Taipei (and nearby Taoyuan) to get your fix.