Also known as milk tea, boba, 珍珠奶茶 (zhen zhu nǎi chá), and pearl milk tea, “bubble tea” is an increasingly popular sweet drink in the U.S.
It originated from Taiwan in the 1980s, although exactly in which city and by whom it was invented is disputed – either at a tea stand in Taichung or at a Tainan teahouse. Historically, the oldest known bubble tea was a delightful concoction of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and syrup or honey.
To enlighten anyone who hasn’t experienced this kind of Asian foodie culture, “bubble tea” is basically tea with milk, some type of sugar or sweetener, and tapioca pearls. “Bubble” refers to the tapioca pearls, which are usually black and are small and round, resembling bubbles; they sit at the bottom of the drink and have a soft and chewy texture.
Typically sweet and cold, these drinks come in a massive array of variations. Sometimes, in addition or instead of pearls, you can request other types of add-ons, such as pudding or jelly. The tea itself can vary from black or green tea. Additionally, there are fruit versions, like mango milk tea, and even fruit-tea fusions, such as peach green tea.
Following the popularity of bubble tea, countless tea shops have popped up all over the world, even in Western countries: Fantasia, Boba Loca, Tapioca Express, Quickly, Half and Half (my personal favorite) – just to name a few.
At most milk tea joints, the options for personalized drinks are flexible. Any tea drinker who knows exactly what they want can request less (or more) ice, a certain level of sweetness, omission of pearls, milk substitution. It’s like the Asian version of Starbucks – but better!
As with any other food trend, with popularity comes controversy and scandal. For bubble tea, the trouble comes in the form of health concerns. With all its sugars and empty calories, bubble tea is by all means not what one would consider a healthy drink. To drag down its nutritional value further, tapioca pearls, milk powder, and juice syrups, all of which are commonly used ingredients in commercialized bubble tea due to their relatively low costs, have been found to contain banned chemical additives, linked to carcinogens and hormone imbalances. Fortunately, a quick Google search yields many results for healthy DIY bubble tea recipes.
Nonetheless, despite its controversial health properties, bubble tea is pretty darn delicious and reasonably priced. It’s no surprise that it continues to reign as a stylish and dessert-esque drink option, especially in large cities with diverse cultures. Sometimes I wish I could drink bubble tea everyday but, alas, it remains a wonderful and occasional treat.