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What is Bubble Tea (or Boba Tea)?

With its jewel-like tapioca pearls, iconic fat straws and a full rainbow of colour choices, bubble tea seems made for the Instagram generation. But in fact, this photogenic thirst-quencher has been around since the 1980s. It was first invented in Taiwan, and has been popular in many East Asian countries ever since, while in the West, it remained one of Chinatown’s tastiest secrets. 

If you’re new to bubble tea, or you just want to find out more, let Fine Dining Lovers be your guide to all things bubble tea leaf, from its origins, to different flavours and recipes to try at home.

Bubble tea - also known as boba tea, pearl milk tea and in its native Taiwan, as zhēnzhū nǎichá  - can refer to a wide variety of drinks. At its most basic, it is tea, milk, ice and tapioca bubbles, all shaken together like a cocktail. Over the decades, however, it has evolved to include different teas, milks, various colourful flavoured syrups, jellies and much more.

Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, bubble tea was a combination of two already-popular culinary trends. Tapioca balls, or fenyuan, were a much-loved dessert topping. Their rubbery, chewy consistency is a much-prized quality in Taiwanese cuisine - there is no direct translation into English, so it is usually referred to as ‘Q’. Shaken milky tea was also a popular phenomenon, and tea shops were a popular sight in towns and cities throughout the country.

Who first thought to put fenyuan and milk tea together is disputed, and has even been the subject of a court case. According to one version of events, Lin Hsiu Hui, product manager at the Chun Shui Tang tea shop, tipped some fenyuan into her tea at a staff meeting in 1988, while entrepreneur Tu Tsong He claims to have come up with the idea after spotting some fenyuan in a market shortly after opening the Hanlin Tea Room in 1986. 

How it’s made

There are many different ingredients that go into the various types of bubble tea. It usually starts with tea, milk and ice, often with syrup flavourings and sugar, then the tapioca bubbles are added, sometimes with other additions such as fruit balls or brightly coloured jellies. The bubble tea is then shaken like a cocktail to make the bubbles float. It is served in a clear glass, with a fat straw to suck up the bubbles.

Bubble tea is super-customisable, and there are virtually endless possible combinations of ingredients. There are several classical types, however, all of which can be adapted in various ways.

Pearl Milk Tea (zhēnzhū nǎichá): 

Small tapioca bubbles are called ‘pearls’. This used to refer to only the tiniest of bubbles, at a twelfth of an inch or less, but is now usually used to describe anything up to a quarter of an inch in diameter. Pearl milk tea is a chilled milky tea drink containing smaller bubbles, or pearls.

Bubble Milk Tea (bōbà nǎichá):

Bubble teas in general are sometimes called ‘boba tea,’ but technically speaking, ‘boba’ specifically refers to the larger tapioca bubbles - anything over a quarter of an inch in diameter. These larger bubbles are named after 1980s Hong Kong sex symbol, Amy Yip, who was nicknamed ‘boba’, or ‘champion of breasts,’ in reference to her most famous assets. Milk tea containing larger bubbles, or tapioca boba, is known as bubble milk tea, or boba tea.

Black Pearl Milk Tea (hēi zhēnzhū nǎichá):

Black pearl milk tea is a variation on pearl milk tea, using black tapioca bubbles instead of white or coloured bubbles.

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