Boba Tea - A delicious cultural phenomenon

Boba Tea - A delicious cultural phenomenon

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What is boba tea?

hand holding a cup filled with boba tea in a green leafy background


When a tea base is blended with milk or fruit flavoring and then poured over black pearls, it makes the famous boba tea. According to the New York Times, the gluten-free pearls (boba) are produced of tapioca starch, which is then blended in an industrial mixer "with brown sugar syrup, water, potassium sorbate, and guar gum, to make a moist, caramel-colored powder." The end result is a chewy black bubble with little flavor. It is also known as pearl milk tea, bubble milk tea, or bubble tea.

Boba tea has a large number of varieties to offer. If you like, you can have a sweet as well as a savory boba. A green tea, black tea, milk tea, fruity tea, coffee, a slushie, or smoothie can be your starting point. Most often people use a dairy tea (tea with powdered or fresh milk and sometimes a sucrose syrup) or a beverage with a flavor (options range from lemon to lychee to taro). The beauty of boba tea is that it is completely customizable and you can choose everything from your preferred tea base to which flavor of boba and finally the delicious toppings as well!

Where did it originate from?

Boba tea comes from Taiwan, though it is disputed which town and which shop it originates from. The discovery of bubble tea has two competing stories. Prior to the 1980s, tapioca balls were a common topping for desserts like the small mountains of snow-like shaved ice found throughout Taiwan and milk tea was already a favorite local drink. However, someone combined the two and history was made

The first story comes from Tainan's Hanlin Tea Room which says that bubble tea was invented in 1986 when Tu Tsong, the owner's tea room, was inspired by white tapioca balls on the Ah-bó-liāu local market. Later he made tea with those Taiwanese traditional snacks. This led to the so-called "Pearl Tea."

The second story about the creation of boba tea comes from Taichung's Chun Shui Tang Taichung tea room. His founder Liu Han Chie, after watching the coffee served cold in Japan during a visit to the eighties, starts serving Chinese tea cold. Her business was driven by a new style of serving tea, which established many chains serving this tea. Lin Hsiu Hui, manager of product development, said in 1988 that she made the first bubble tea when, at a meeting, she spilled tapioca balls on her tea and encouraged others to drink it. The drink was well received and included on the menu by everyone at the meeting. It went on to become the most sold product of the franchise.

These stories however show the merging of tapioca pearls and milk tea which today is a famed combination.

Specialty of boba tea

Boba or tapioca pearls in sugar syrup held up with a spoon


The special twist on tea apart from all the different bases and flavors that the world of bubble tea has to offer is the delectable, chewy tapioca pearls. The tapioca pearls are also known as "boba" and are generally made of Cassava starch, a South American root vegetable which is also known as yuca. The boba can vary in size and the drink comes with a wide straw through which you can eat the pearls as you drink the boba tea. 

During the period of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945, the cassava plant was brought to Taiwan from Brazil through South-East Asia. Tapioca pearls start white, hard and pretty tasteless, then are cooked in big bubbling cans and stuck for hours in sugar caramelized syrup, until they finally turn into black springy tapioca pearls we know and love.

Popularity in the USA

boba tea in a glass with a bowl of boba pearls


In the 1990s, Taiwanese immigrants opened the first bubble tea shop, Fantasia Coffee & Tea, in Cupertino, California and that was that. This marked the beginning of a massive cultural phenomenon via food and drink. Boba culture then reached America through neighborhoods in Taiwan and flourished near schools and high schools, where students gathered for groups to study. Even now many boba shops open late and feature affordable snacks and drinks that make it the perfect stop for studying and hanging late at night.

As the beverage became increasingly popular in the United States, it became a cultural identity more than just a yummy drink. Chinese-American brothers Andrew and David Fung referred to this phenomenon as 'boba life' in their 2013 music video, 'Bobalife.' Boba symbolizes a subculture, which Asian Americans proudly held onto as social minorities, and boba life reflects the desire for cultural and political recognition.

Regions with large concentrations of bubble tea restaurants in the United States are the Northeast and Southwest and today, boba is a nationwide phenomenon. It is a drink loved by people of all age groups and needless to say, makes for an extremely instagrammable photo with all its beautiful colors and the boba pearls showing from within the tea.

Another type of boba which has gained popularity is ‘popping boba’. It is a sphere which pops once bitten and is different in its constituent composition from regular boba. Contrary to traditional boba, which is made from tapioca flour, popping boba is made by the sodium-alginate reaction process using either calcium chloride or calcium lactate. Popping boba has a thin gel-like skin that is filled with juice. The ingredients of popping boba are generally water, sugar, fruit juice and other flavors, as well as the ingredients used to make the sphere.

What teas can be used to make boba tea

different flavors of boba tea

Since its beginnings, the basic tapioca iced tea recipe has evolved into an entire genre of drinks. The tea base for boba drinks is usually black or green tea. Black tea seems to be the most popular choice for making this yummy drink because of its robust flavor which is pronounced even after the addition of milk. Earl Grey tea has also become a favorite when it comes to being a base for boba tea due to its delectable taste and citrusy notes. Other than Black Tea, Green Tea is also very popular as the base tea...for Milk Tea, Assam is very popular. Other popular varieties include Matcha, Roasted Barley etc. The blending of different fruit punches like Strawberry, Blueberry, Mango, Kiwi etc. are the most popular among the younger crowd. 

Want to make boba tea at home? Explore our range of black teas, especially Assam CTC (for Milk Tea) and our Darjeeling 2nd flush, Himalayan Wonder and Nilgiri for Black Tea and our Green Tea to find the perfect base for your boba tea!


서울오피 9/5/22
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