What is Bubble Tea?

In the past decade, a beverage known as Bubble or Boba tea has become a global phenomenon. At first, it overtook the Far East, the rest of Asia, and now, you can buy this drink anywhere in the world.

However, despite its global fame, many still don’t know what Bubble tea is; the Western cultures are used to drinking regular tea, or coffee, so there might lie a cultural difference that has people in the West still questioning what this unusual beverage is.

If you’re one of these people, you’re in the right place. In the following paragraphs, we are going to look at Bubble tea, what it is and where it comes from.

Bubble Tea Explained

Boba or Bubble tea is a name that refers to a drink which in its most basic form includes ingredients like milk, ice, sweeteners, and chewy tapioca pearls or jelly. It is a form of the so-called chunky drink that originates in Taipei, Taiwan.

The Bubble tea comes in all shapes and forms, requires to be thoroughly shaken (which is really fun) and is served with a big straw (with the straw you’re able to eat all the tapioca pearls that accommodate at the bottom of the cup).

The name Bubble tea usually refers to the frothy milk bubbles that appear after shaking the drink, while the name Boba refers to the tapioca pearls. Here’s a short list of all the ingredients you might find in your Bubble tea;

  • Milk, either fresh, condensed or powdered,
  • Sugar or other sweeteners, which is usually optional,
  • Toppings, also known as the tapioca pearls or Boba,
  • Popping Boba (spheres that contain fruit juice or syrups inside them),
  • Fruit or grass jelly,
  • Brewed, usually black tea (can also be green, Matcha or Oolong),
  • Agar jelly or coconut jelly,
  • Puddings,
  • Creamer,
  • Azuki beans,
  • Mung bean paste,
  • Sago (a starch extracted from palm trees),
  • Coffee,
  • Flavors like hibiscus, saffron, rosewater, cardamom, etc.

Bubble Tea boba

Bubble or Boba tea can be served with or without milk; in the version without the milk, you’ll be drinking regular black, green or Oolong brew, either hot or cold. In the version containing the milk, the drink can also contain almond milk, coconut milk, skim milk or powdered milk.

There are also versions with non-dairy creamer or lactose-free milk. Because of the variety of ingredients, and in order for them to still retain their tasty flavors, Boba is commonly served cold. You can also order your Bubble tea hot and then add some crushed ice to make it a bit cooler and easier to drink.


Tapioca Pearls Explained

One of the main ingredients of Bubble tea are, of course, tapioca pearls. In Chinese, they are referred to as pearls, or 珍珠 (zhenzhu) or as Boba. But even though they are indispensable in Bubble tea, these pearls seem to be the most mysterious ingredients as well. Tapioca pearls are actually spheres, that are translucent and made from tapioca starch.

Also known as Boba (波霸), tapioca pearls are usually small in size and consist of ingredients like sweet potato and regular potato powder or jelly. Other seasonings are also added, as well as water and sugar to affect the color, taste, and chewiness. Before being added to the drink, tapioca pearls are cooked to become soft and chewy.

tapioca pearls

Tapioca pearls are usually black in color. They also seem to be stuck to each other, due to the use of thickeners or thickening agents like pudding. They are usually referred to as Q or QQ pearls, which in English would mean ‘bouncy, rubbery and chewy’. This Q or QQ texture is very important for food in East Asia; you might find it in fish balls, noodles, ramen, and rice cakes.

The cooked pearls are placed at the bottom of a cup while other ingredients are being added. Only when the Bubble tea is vigorously shaken do these pearls separate and float around in the brew.

Usually, tapioca pearls are flavorless, but when soaked in sweeteners or syrups, they become much sweeter. However, tapioca pearls are mainly used for their texture and unique appearance in the cup, and their flavor is secondary to other ingredients.


So, who came up with Bubble tea?

Bubble tea, as mentioned before comes from Taipei, Taiwan. It was first introduced to the public by the street food makers in the 1980s, as some believe. Quickly, the drink became a trend in Taiwan, as this visually unique beverage was appealing to every generation.

A cup of black pearls and sweet iced brew was the Boba drink in its original, old school form. The pearls were considerably bigger, and there have been reports of choking hazards. Luckily, Bubble tea makers and coffee shops decided to serve smaller-sized tapioca pearls.

Before the decision to place them in teas, tapioca pearls have been used as toppings for desserts. On the other hand, milk has already had a legendary status in Taiwan and was very much appreciated and cherished by the locals. One story claims that tapioca pearls and milk have been mixed for the first time by Liu Han Chien, at his Taichung tea shop.

It is believed that this monumental decision took place in the early 1980s. Another story, however, claims that Bubble tea as we know it today can be traced to Hanlin Tea Room, a tea shop in Tainan. Many other stories further claim that street food makers decided to mix tapioca pearls, milk and tea in order not to waste ingredients and use everything by the end of the day.

Today, there are over 20,000 Boba tea shops in Taiwan, as well as Taiwanese international chains like Sharetea, Coco Fresh Tea & Juice, and Gong Cha. Regardless of who invented this unique drink, it is definitely recognized as the main Taiwanese product that has reached international recognition and fame. Bubble tea, as well as ingredients used to make it (like Taiwanese tapioca pearls), are some of the main Taiwanese exports for the global market, accumulating millions of dollars every year.

More: How to Make Milk Tea – 12 Recipe Ideas

Types of Bubble Tea

Bubble tea is known to have dozens of types, flavors and ingredient combinations. Here are some of the most interesting types you can try today, or can use as an excuse to visit Taiwan;

  • Cheese Bubble Tea – at the Taiwanese night market you can come across Bubble teas that contain powdered cheese. Among other ingredients, this Bubble tea contains whipping cream with salt and a cup of cold brew. It certainly is an interesting drink.
  • Fruit-Filled Boba – if you want to avoid extra calories added by condensed or powdered milk, you might want to try fruit-filled Bubble tea. Some of the fruits that are used include melon, lemon, mango, lychee, and even tomato. Of course, there are also tapioca pearls, fruit jelly, watermelon cubes, and passionfruit seeds.
  • Brown Sugar Boba – Boba tea with brown sugar has become a recent trend in Taiwan. This variety is milk-heavy, as well as heavy in brown sugar. The combination of sugar and milk creates a wonderful color gradient with black tapioca pearls at the bottom.

brown-sugar-bubble tea

Health and Nutrition Facts

Bubble tea is very high in calories; tapioca pearls alone contain up to 500 calories, and 135 carbs. Not to mention milk, sweeteners, and numerous other ingredients that keep on adding the calorie count.

Nevertheless, Bubble tea does have health benefits; many claim that tapioca itself is a source of iron, fiber, and manganese, and that it is low in cholesterol, sodium or fat. Moreover, tapioca pearls are gluten-free, so they are surely healthy for those with gluten, nuts or grain allergies.

Nevertheless, it is important to mention that there are numerous additives in Bubble tea; flavor enhancers, sweeteners, artificial coloring, acidity or firming regulators and agents and many more. There are few controversies surrounding Bubble tea and the additives, but the Taiwanese FDA usually questions the accuracy of studies and research results.

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