Bubble tea (also known as pearl milk tea, bubble milk tea, or boba) (Chinese: 珍珠奶茶; pinyin: zhēnzhū nǎichá, 波霸奶茶; bōbà nǎichá) is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s. It became known as “bubble tea” because of the thick layer of foam that forms on top of the drink after it is shaken. Recipes contain tea of some kind, flavors of milk, and sugar (optional). Toppings, known as "pearls", such as chewy tapioca balls (also known as pearls or boba), popping boba, fruit jelly, grass jelly, agar jelly, and puddings are often added. Ice-blended versions are frozen and put into a blender, resulting in a slushy consistency. There are many varieties of the drink with a wide range of flavors. The two most popular varieties are black pearl milk tea and green pearl milk tea.
Pearl milk tea
Boba milk tea
|Place of origin||Taiwan|
|Region or state||Worldwide, specifically Asia|
|Main ingredients||Tapioca, milk, creamer, brewed tea, sugar, flavorings|
Bubble teas fall under two categories: teas (without milk) and milk teas. Both varieties come with a choice of black, green, or oolong tea, and come in many flavors (both fruit and non-fruit). Milk teas include either condensed milk, powdered milk, almond milk, coconut milk, 2% milk, skim milk, or fresh milk. Some shops offer non-dairy creamer options as well (many milk tea drinks in North America are made with non-dairy creamer). In addition, many boba shops sell Asian style smoothies, which include a dairy base and either fresh fruit or fruit-flavored powder, creating fruity flavours, such as honeydew, lemon, and many more (but no tea). Now, there are hot versions available at most shops as well.
The oldest known bubble tea consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls (粉圓), condensed milk, and syrup (糖漿) or honey. Many variations followed; the most common are served cold rather than hot. The most prevalent varieties of tea have changed frequently.
Bubble tea first became popular in Taiwan in the 1980s, but the original inventor is unknown. Larger tapioca pearls (波霸/黑珍珠) were adapted and quickly replaced the small pearls. Soon after, different flavors, especially fruit flavors, became popular. Flavors may be added in the form of powder, pulp, or syrup to oolong, black or green tea, which is then shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. The tea mixture is then poured into a cup with the toppings in it.
Today, there are stores that specialize in bubble tea. Some cafés use plastic lids, but more authentic bubble tea shops serve drinks using a machine to seal the top of the cup with plastic cellophane. The latter method allows the tea to be shaken in the serving cup and makes it spill-free until one is ready to drink it. The cellophane is then pierced with an oversize straw large enough to allow the toppings to pass through. Today, in Taiwan, it is most common for people to refer to the drink as pearl milk tea (zhēn zhū nǎi chá, or zhēn nǎi for short).
Each of the ingredients of bubble tea can have many variations depending on the tea store. Typically, different types of black tea, green tea, oolong tea, and sometimes white tea are used. Another variation called yuenyeung (鴛鴦, named after the Mandarin duck) originated in Hong Kong and consists of black tea, coffee, and milk. Decaffeinated versions of teas are sometimes available when the tea house freshly brews the tea base.
Other varieties of the drink can include blended tea drinks. Some may be blended with ice cream. There are also smoothies that contain both tea and fruit.
Although bubble tea originated in Taiwan, some bubble tea shops are starting to add in flavors which originate from other countries. For example, hibiscus flowers, saffron, cardamom, and rosewater are becoming popular.
Tapioca balls (boba) are the prevailing chewy spheres in bubble tea, but a wide range of other options can be used to add similar texture to the drink. These are usually black due to the brown sugar mixed in with the tapioca. Green pearls have a small hint of green tea flavor and are chewier than the traditional tapioca balls. Jelly comes in different shapes: small cubes, stars, or rectangular strips, and flavors such as coconut jelly, konjac, lychee, grass jelly, mango, coffee and green tea available at some shops. Azuki bean or mung bean paste, typical toppings for Taiwanese shaved ice desserts, give the drinks an added subtle flavor as well as texture. Aloe, egg pudding (custard), and sago can be found in most tea houses.
Popping Boba are spheres and have fruit juices or syrups inside of them. They are also popular toppings. The many flavors include mango, lychee, strawberry, green apple, passion fruit, pomegranate, orange, cantaloupe, blueberry, coffee, chocolate, yogurt, kiwi, peach, banana, lime, cherry, pineapple, red guava, etc.
Some shops offer milk or cheese foam top off the drink too, which has a thicker consistency similar to that of whipped cream.
Bubble tea cafés will frequently offer drinks without coffee or tea in them. The dairy base for these drinks is flavoring blended with ice, often called snow bubble. All mix-ins that can be added to the bubble tea can be added to these slushie-like drinks. One drawback is that the coldness of the iced drink may cause the tapioca balls to harden, making them difficult to suck up through a straw and chew. To prevent this from happening, these slushies must be consumed more quickly than bubble tea.
Bubble tea stores often give customers the option of choosing the amount of ice or sugar, usually using percentages. Bubble tea is also offered in some restaurants, like the Michelin-awarded Din Tai Fung.
There are two competing stories for the origin of bubble tea. The Hanlin Tea Room of Tainan, Taiwan claims that it was invented in 1986 when teahouse owner Tu Tsong-he was inspired by white tapioca balls he saw in the Ya Mu Liao market. He then made tea using the tapioca balls, resulting in the so-called "pearl tea". Shortly after, Hanlin changed the white tapioca balls to the black version, mixed with brown sugar or honey, that is seen today. At many locations, one can purchase both black tapioca balls and white tapioca balls.
The other claim is from the Chun Shui Tang tearoom in Taichung, Taiwan. Its founder, Liu Han-Chieh, observed how the Japanese served cold coffee (while on a visit in the 1980s) and applied this method to tea. The new style of serving tea propelled his business, and multiple chains were established. This expansion began the rapid expansion of bubble tea. The creator of bubble tea is Lin Hsiu Hui, the teahouse's product development manager, who randomly poured her fen yuan into the iced tea drink during a boring meeting in 1988. The beverage was well received at the meeting, leading to its inclusion on the menu. It ultimately became the franchise's top-selling product.
The drink became popular in most parts of East and Southeast Asia during the 1990s, especially Vietnam. In Malaysia, the number of brands selling the beverage has grown to over 50. The drink is well received by foreign consumers in North America, specifically around areas with high populations of Chinese and Taiwanese expatriates. Notably, in the Bay Area of California, bubble tea is very popular and is consumed by many consumers from various backgrounds. Bubble tea has a very large presence in the city of San Jose, California which is populated by many of those from Chinese and Vietnamese backgrounds. It is one of the cities with the most bubble tea shops in the United States. In contemporary times, bubble tea has achieved cultural significance outside of Taiwan in some areas for major East Asian diaspora populations.
- 泡沫紅茶 (pinyin: pàomò hóngchá): "Foam red tea", by direct translation, is the drink that is more appropriate for the more literal name of "bubble tea"; the English name, foam tea, is not used much in Asia. Consequently, in non-Chinese-speaking Asian countries, "bubble tea" is commonly used to refer to this drink. There is no tapioca in this drink. To create it, vendors mix hot or warm tea (in this case, black tea) with syrup or sugar and ice cubes into a cocktail shaker. Then they shake the mix either by hand or by machine before it is served. The resulting tea is be covered by a layer of foam or froth and the tea has a light foamy feel.
- 泡沫奶茶 (pinyin: pàomò nǎichá): "Foam milk tea:" One of the many variants that is prepared the same way as the "foam red tea", well-shaken before serving.
- 珍珠奶茶 or 珍奶 for short) (pinyin: zhēnzhū nǎichá): "Pearl milk tea" or more commonly referred to as bubble tea by most English speakers and overseas Chinese speakers. The "pearl" name originally referred to the small tapioca pearls added to the drink. Though most modern vendors serve only the bigger 7mm pearls, they still use "pearl tea" as the name.
- 波霸奶茶 (pinyin: bōbà nǎichá): "Bubble milk tea" is commonly referred to as boba tea by English speakers and Asian Americans. The name refers to the variant with the bigger, 7mm tapioca pearls.
- 黑珍珠奶茶 (pinyin: hēi zhēnzhū nǎichá): "Black pearl milk tea:" Since the bigger 7mm tapioca pearls are separately sold as "black pearls" (黑珍珠) in markets, this name was the logical first choice and is more popular with consumers. "Boba" (波霸) is an alternative name that is less commonly used these days.
- (奶)茶珍珠 (pinyin: (nǎi) chá zhēnzhū): "(milk) tea pearl" (less common).
- 泡泡茶 (pinyin: pào pào chá): used interchangeably with 珍珠奶茶 to refer to "bubble tea" in Singapore.
- 奶蓋茶 (pinyin: nǎi gài chá): "milk cap tea": A layered tea drink with a frothy top layer of cream (hence the name milk cap) made from milk, salt or cheese, giving it a slightly salty taste. The base tea is usually served without milk. It is often recommended one takes a sip of the tea and milk cap layers first before mixing them together. It is sometimes called "milk foam tea" but should not be confused with 泡沫奶茶.
In May 2011, a food scandal occurred in Taiwan when DEHP (a chemical plasticizer and potential carcinogen used to make plastic) was found as a stabilizer in drinks and juice syrups. In June the Health Minister of Malaysia, Liow Tiong Lai, instructed companies selling "Strawberry Syrup", a material used in some bubble teas, to stop selling them after chemical tests showed they were tainted with DEHP.
In August 2012, scientists from the Technical University of Aachen (RWTH) in Germany analyzed bubble tea samples in a research project to look for allergenic substances. The result indicated that the products contain styrene, acetophenone, and brominated substances, which can negatively affect health. The report was published by German newspaper Rheinische Post and caused Taiwan's representative office in Germany to issue a statement, saying food items in Taiwan are monitored. Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration confirmed in September that, in a second round of tests conducted by German authorities, Taiwanese bubble tea was found to be free of cancer-causing chemicals. The products were also found to contain no excessive levels of heavy-metal contaminants or other health-threatening agents.
In May 2013, the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration issued an alert on the detection of maleic acid, an unapproved food additive, in some food products, including tapioca pearls. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore conducted its own tests and found additional brands of tapioca pearls and some other starch-based products sold in Singapore were similarly affected.
In July 2019, Singapore's Mount Alvernia Hospital warned against the sugar content of bubble tea since the drink had become extremely popular in Singapore in recent years. While it recognises the benefits of drinking green tea and black tea in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis and cancer, the hospital cautions the addition of other ingredients like non-dairy creamer and toppings in the tea, which raises the fat and sugar content of the tea and increases the risk of chronic diseases. Non-dairy creamer is a milk substitute that contains trans fat in the form of hydrogenated palm oil. The hospital warns that this oil has been strongly correlated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
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