Bubble tea, also called "Boba" tea, is a tea beverage that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and migrated to Canada before spreading to Chinatown in New York, then to various spots throughout the West Coast of the United States. The literal translation from Chinese is pearl milk tea (). The word "bubble" refers to "bubbling", the process by which certain types of bubble tea are made, and not the actual tapioca balls. The balls are often called "pearls." Drinks with large pearls are consumed along with the beverage through wide straws; while drinks with small pearls are consumed through normal straws. Bubble tea is especially popular in many East Asian and Southeast Asian regions such as Taiwan, China (including Hong Kong and Macau), Brunei, Malaysia, Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, and more recently popularized in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Perú.
The distinctive characteristic of bubble tea is the presence of chewy translucent balls of pearl tapioca (that sit at the bottom of the glass). Usually the pearls are "large pearl," larger than the "small pearl" that is customary in tapioca pudding. Cooked, large pearls have a diameter of at least 6 millimeters. Occasionally, "small pearl" tapioca is used. Both sizes of pearls are available in a variety of colors. The pearls are prepared by boiling for 25 minutes, until they are cooked thoroughly but have not lost pliancy, then cooled for 25 minutes. After cooking they last about 7 hours. The pearls have little taste, and are usually soaked in sugar or honey solutions.
The original bubble tea consisted of a hot Taiwanese black tea, brown large pearl tapioca, condensed milk, and honey. As this drink became more popular, variations were created. Initially iced versions with a hint of peach or plum flavoring began to appear, then more fruit flavors were added until, in some variations, the tea was removed entirely in favor of real fruits. These fruit versions usually contain colored pearls (and/or "jelly cubes" as in the related drink taho), the color chosen to match whatever fruit juice is used. Flavors may be added in the form of powder, fruit juice, pulp, or syrup to hot black or green tea, which is shaken in a cocktail shaker or mixed in a blender with ice until chilled. Cooked tapioca pearls and other mix-ins are addded at the end.
Today one can find shops entirely devoted to bubble tea, similar to juice bars of the early 1990s. Bubble tea bars often serve bubble tea using a machine to seal the top of the cup with plastic cellophane. This allows the tea to be shaken in the serving cup. The cellophane is then pierced with a straw. The straw may be brightly colored, and is oversize, large enough for sucking up the pearls. Other cafés use plastic dome-shaped lids.
Bubble tea kits for making bubble tea at home can also be purchased from online shops.
The milk in bubble tea is optional and many tea houses uses powder milk rather than fresh. Some cafes use a non-dairy creamer milk substitute instead of milk because many East Asians are lactose intolerant. Soy milk options are widely available for those who avoid dairy products for various reasons. This adds a distinct flavor and consistency to the drink.
Different flavoring can be added to bubble tea. Some widely available fruit flavors include strawberry, green apple, passion fruit, mango, lemon, grape, lychee, peach, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, kiwi. Other popular non-fruit flavors include taro, coconut, chocolate, barley, sesame, almond, ginger, lavender, rose, violet. Some of the sour fruit flavors are usually only available in bubble tea without milk as the acidity will curdle the milk.
Tapioca balls of big and small sizes are of course the prevailing chewy tid-bit in bubble tea, but a wide range of other options can add equally tantalizing texture to the drink. Green pearls have a small hint of green tea flavor, and are chewier than the traditional tapioca balls. Jelly, in small cube or rectangular strips, with flavors like coconut jelly, konjac, lychee ,grass, mango, green tea, or rainbow (a fruit mix), has a pliant, almost crispy consistency. Red bean or mung bean mush, also typical toppings for Taiwanese shaved ice, give the drink an added subtle flavor as well texture. Aloe, egg pudding, sago, taro balls can also be found in most tea houses to complete the perfect cup of tea.
Bubble tea cafes will almost always serve drinks without coffee or tea in them. The 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 also be added to these slushie-like drinks. One drawback to Snow Bubble 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, Snow Bubble tea must be consumed faster than regular bubble tea.
Bubble tea cafes are often popular hangouts for younger Asians. Consequently, they will often have stacks of magazines (both Asian and American versions), Chinese manga, and show music videos of Asian pop music. These cafes will generally have a small food menu catering to its clientele.
An alternative origin is the Hanlin (翰林)Teahouse in Tainan City, Taiwan, owned by Tu Tsong He Hanlin. Bubble tea is made by adding traditional white fenyuan which have an appearance of pearls, supposedly resulting in the so-called "pearl tea." Shortly after, Hanlin changed the white fenyuan (粉圓) to the black, as it is today.
In the late 1990's, bubble tea began to gain popularity in the major North American cities with large Asian populations, especially those on the West Coast and East Coast and in Texas. The trend in the United States was started by Lollicup in the city of San Gabriel, California and quickly spread throughout Southern California. The beverage has received much attention from mainstream American media, including covers on National Public Radio show Morning Edition and the Los Angeles Times. In the U.S., national and local chains are expanding into suburban areas, particularly those with large Asian populations. Bubble tea shops can now be found in shopping malls and shopping centers in the suburbs. It can also be found in a number of Chinese and Thai restaurants in and around large cities and college towns. Los Angeles and Orange County currently has one of the highest concentration of "boba" bars in the U.S., due to the region's large number of Asian residents.
Bubble tea has spread internationally through Chinatowns and other overseas Asian communities. It can be found in major European cities such as London and Paris. Bubble tea is also gaining in popularity in Canada, particularly in and around the cities of Vancouver, British Columbia; Winnipeg, Manitoba; Toronto, Ontario; Edmonton, Calgary; Alberta; and Montreal, Quebec where there are large Asian-Canadian communities. It is also gaining popularity in Australia, especially in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne where there are also high concentrations of Asian immigrants and descendants.
Bubble tea has many other names, including: