Bubble tea, which enjoyed brief popularity in the United States in the late 2000s, made a comeback in 2016, according to NPR. Recognizable to many people by the tapioca balls at the bottom and the wide straws that allow you to sip them along with your tea, you probably know bubble tea when you see it. But how much do you really know about bubble tea? These facts about bubble tea’s history, ingredients, and health risks might surprise you.
Who invented it and why?
Bubble tea is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Taichung in the 1980s. As the story goes, Lin Hsiu Hui got bored during a meeting and poured her tapioca dessert into her tea. It turns out it was delicious! It probably wouldn’t have worked if Lin Hsiu Hui wasn’t already the product development manager for Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung, Taiwan. The founder of the teahouse first came up with the idea of serving traditionally hot Chinese tea cold in the early 1980s after seeing coffee served cold in Japan. Cold tea and sweetened syrup, plus chewy tapioca balls — and the rest is history.
Bubble doesn’t refer to the tapioca
Even though Lin Hsiu Hui first created bubble tea by adding tapioca balls into her tea, the “bubble” in bubble tea actually refers to the oxygen pockets formed by shaking the tea. It’s likely that these same bubbles formed when she first poured her tapioca dessert into her tea during that fateful, boring meeting when she invented it. This is also why you can get bubble tea without any tapioca. What makes it bubble tea is the shake or blending that causes bubbles at the top.
What’s in a name?
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that because the bubbles refer specifically to the shaking and oxygen bubbles in the tea, you might find bubble tea by many other names that describe aspects of the drink. Milk tea, pearl tea, tapioca tea, boba tea, boba nai cha, foam milk tea, momi milk tea, and Q (or QQ), which means chewy, are a few of the variations. While many American shops use boba tea and bubble tea interchangeably (with more references to boba on the West Coast), it has more to do with the size of the tapioca.
Evolution of tapioca size
The size of the tapioca in bubble tea can vary. This explains a few of the different names for the tea. Pearl tea refers to the original bubble tea with smaller tapioca (“pearls”). Boba tea, on the other hand, refers to the bubble tea with larger pearls (“boba”). Because the small pearls are typically used in desserts like the one Lin Hsiu Hui poured into her tea in the 1980s, we might say that small pearls are the traditional style for bubble tea, though now almost all shops use the larger boba.
Tapioca isn’t the only option
If you want something chewy in your bubble tea but don’t like tapioca, no problem! Other options for the jelly-like balls include grass jelly, konjac jelly, or nata de coco (a high fiber, coconut based jelly). You can also get popping boba, which is made from a seaweed extract with fruit juice flavoring inside that pops open once bitten into. Some shops even offer puddings or beans as a tapioca-alternative.