Bubble Tea Explained
Alexander Webb – The Wandering Writer
Bubble tea isn’t just found in Asia anymore – it’s a bona fide global phenomenon. But what is it and what are its origins? Let’s find out.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. It is a drink made with milk tea, tapioca balls, and sugar. Sometimes, fruit or fruit flavors are also added. Large straws are provided to suck up the sweet tapioca balls along with the milk tea. From its humble origins in Taichung, it has spread across the world, taking over Hong Kong and China, but also becoming popular in Sydney, Melbourne, New York, San Francisco, London, and beyond.
Although most people think that the name “bubble tea” refers to the tapioca balls at the bottom, it actually originally referred to the frothy milk bubbles that were created while making this delicious drink. But now, most people refer to the tapioca balls as bubbles. Fun fact: In Chinese, the tapioca balls are called pearls – 珍珠 (zhenzhu). But, there is another, naughtier name as well. Bubble tea is sometimes called boba tea. Boba (波霸) is slang for “big breast”.
Although tapioca balls, milk tea, and sugar are the original ingredients, bubble tea culture has changed as it has spread across the world. There are now a multitude of replacements for black tapioca balls, from jelly, to fruit bits, to white tapioca – the possibilities are nearly endless. Additionally, milk tea is no longer the only primary ingredient. There are now fruit smoothies that add exotic ingredients like passion fruit or avocado to the traditional bubble tea recipe. Local taste is responsible for much of the variation – expect to see an avocado bubble tea in California, and a Thai iced tea bubble tea in Bangkok.
Whether you get an avocado bubble tea with mango jelly at the bottom, or decide simply to stay traditional with milk tea and tapioca, you’ll enjoy this drink every time.
Alex Webb is a traveller who has visited over 30 countries and lived in Hong Kong, Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States. He has written for National Geographic Books and co-authored a book published by the Financial Times Press. When he’s not travelling or writing, he enjoys playing guitar and writing songs. Follow him on instagram at @alxndrwb