|Alternative names||pearl milk tea, boba milk tea|
|Place of origin||Taiwan|
|Main ingredients||Tapioca, milk/creamer, brewed tea, sugar, water|
|Cookbook:Bubble Tea Boba|
Bubble tea, also known as pearl milk tea or boba milk tea, is a Taiwanese tea-based drink invented in Taichung in the 1980s. Most bubble tea recipes contain a tea base mixed/shaken with fruit or milk, to which chewy tapioca balls and/or fruit jellies are often added. The "bubble" refers to the foam created by shaking the tea, which itself is called "pao4mo4" (泡沫) tea, meaning "frothy/foamy" tea. It is common to add large, chewy tapioca balls to the drink, which are nicknamed bōbà (波霸), which is slang for "large breasts", and sounds much like "bubble"—thus the term "boba tea" and "bubble tea" have become somewhat synonymous in America, however in Taiwan there is a big distinction. These balls are also variantly called (粉圓, fěnyuán), or "pearls" (珍珠, zhēnzhū), especially when the balls are smaller ("boba" refers to the larger size). Ice-blended versions are usually mixed with fruit or syrup, resulting in a slushy consistency.
There are many variants of the drinks, and many kinds of ingredients may be added. The most popular bubble drinks are bubble milk tea with tapioca and bubble milk green tea with tapioca.
Bubble teas are typically of two distinct types: fruit-flavored teas and milk teas. However, some shops offer hybrid "fruit milk teas". Most milk teas include powdered dairy or non-dairy creamers, but some shops also offer fresh milk as an alternative. Other varieties are 100% crushed-fruit smoothies with tapioca pearls and signature ice cream shakes made from local ice cream sources. Many American bubble tea vendors sell "milk smoothies", which are similar to bubble tea but do not contain any tea ingredients. Some small cafés offer sweetener substitutes, such as honey, agave, stevia, and aspartame, upon special request.
The oldest known bubble tea consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls (粉圓), condensed milk, and syrup (糖漿) or honey. Many variations were created, the most common of which is served cold rather than hot. The tea type is frequently replaced. First was bubble green tea, which uses jasmine-infused green tea (茉香綠茶) instead of black tea. Big tapioca pearls (波霸/黑珍珠) were adapted and quickly replaced the small pearls. Peach or plum flavoring appeared, then more fruit flavors were added until, in some variations, the tea was removed entirely in favor of real fruit. These fruit versions sometimes 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 then shaken in a cocktail shaker or mixed with ice in a blender. Cooked tapioca pearls and other mix-ins (such as vanilla extract, honey, syrup, and sugar) are added at the end.
Today, one can find shops entirely devoted to bubble tea, similar to the juice bars of the early 1990s. Some cafés use plastic dome-shaped lids, while other bubble tea bars serve it using a machine to seal the top of the cup with plastic cellophane. The latter method allows the tea to be shaken in the serving cup and makes it spill-free until one is ready to drink it. The cellophane is then pierced with an oversized straw large enough to allow the pearls to pass through.
Today, in Taiwan, it's more common for people to refer to the drink as "pearl milk tea" ("zhēn zhū nǎi chá", or "zhēn nǎi" for short). "Pearl milk tea" is also used by English speakers and overseas Chinese and Taiwanese speakers, but it is usually called "bubble tea" or "boba tea" by English speakers, with the former seemingly more common in locations with less Chinese influence.
Each of the ingredients of bubble tea can have many variations depending on the tea store. Typically, different types of black tea, green tea, or even coffee form the basis of this beverage. The most common black tea varieties are oolong and Earl Grey, while jasmine green tea is a mainstay at almost all tea stores. Another variation called yuanyang (鴛鴦, named after the Mandarin duck) originated in Hong Kong and consists of half black tea and half coffee. Some people add milk to the drink. Decaffeinated versions of teas are sometimes available when the tea house freshly brews the tea base.
The milk in bubble tea is optional, though many tea stores use it. Some cafés use a non-dairy creamer milk substitute instead of milk because many East Asians are lactose intolerant and because it is cheaper and easier to store and use than perishable milk. In Western countries, soy milk options are widely available for those who avoid dairy products. This adds a distinct flavor and consistency to the drink.
Different flavorings can be added to bubble tea. Some widely available fruit flavors include strawberry, green apple, passion fruit, mango, lemon, watermelon, grape, lychee, peach, pineapple, cantaloupe, honeydew, banana, avocado, coconut, kiwifruit, and jackfruit. Other popular non-fruit flavors include taro, pudding, chocolate, coffee, mocha, barley, sesame, almond, ginger, lavender, rose, caramel, and violet. Some of the sour fruit flavors are available in bubble tea without milk only as the acidity tends to curdle the milk.
Other varieties of the bubble tea drink can include blended drinks. Many stores in the US provide a list of choices to choose from. Some may include coffee-blended drinks or even smoothies.
Tapioca balls (boba) are the prevailing chewy tidbits in bubble tea, but a wide range of other options can be used to add similar texture to the drink. Green pearls have a small hint of green tea flavor and are chewier than the traditional tapioca balls. Jelly is also used in small cubes, stars, or rectangular strips, with flavors such as coconut jelly, konjac, lychee, grass, mango, and green tea often available at some shops. Rainbow, a fruit mix of konjac, has a pliant, almost crispy consistency. Azuki bean or mung bean paste, also typical toppings for Taiwanese shaved ice desserts, give the drinks an added subtle flavor as well as texture. Aloe, egg pudding (custard pudding), sago, and taro balls can also be found in most tea houses.
Due to its popularity, single-serving packets of black tea (with powdered milk and sugar included) are available as "Instant Boba Milk Tea" in some places.
Bubble tea cafés will also frequently 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 them 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, these slushies must be consumed more quickly than bubble tea.
Occasionally, nata de coco is used in mass-produced bubble tea drinks as a healthier alternative to tapioca starch. Nata de coco is high in dietary fiber and low in cholesterol and fat. The nata de coco is sliced into thin strips to make it easier to pass through a straw.
The most accredited story about the creation of bubble tea is the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung, Taiwan. The founder of the teahouse, Liu Han-Chieh, observed how the Japanese served cold coffee while on a visit in the 1980s, and applied this method to tea. The new style of serving tea propelled his business, and multiple chains were established. This expansion would be the stepping stone for the rapid expansion of bubble tea. The actual creator of bubble tea is Lin Hsiu Hui, the teahouse's product development manager, who poured a sweetened pudding with tapioca balls into the iced tea drink during a meeting in 1988. The beverage was well received by the people at the meeting, leading to its inclusion on the menu. It ultimately became the franchise's top-selling product.
An alternative origin is the Hanlin teahouse in Tainan, Taiwan, owned by Tu Tsong-he. He made tea using traditional white tapioca, which has the appearance of pearls, supposedly resulting in the so-called "pearl tea". Shortly after, Hanlin changed the white tapioca balls to the black version that is seen most today.
The drink became popular in most parts of East and Southeast Asia during the 1990s. The drink is well received by global consumers from Canada and USA, specifically around areas with high Asian demographics.
- 泡沫紅茶 (pinyin: pàomò hóngchá): "foam red tea", by direct translation, is the drink that is more appropriate for the more literal name of "bubble tea"; however, the English name, foam tea, is not used much throughout Asia. Consequently, in non-Chinese-speaking Asian countries, "bubble tea" is commonly used to refer to this drink. There is no tapioca in this particular drink. To create this, vendors mix hot or warm tea (in this case, black tea) with syrup or sugar and ice cubes into a cocktail shaker. Then they would shake the shaker either by hand or by machine before it is served. The resulting tea would be covered by a layer of foam or froth and the tea would have a light foamy feel to the taste.
- 泡沫奶茶 (pinyin: pàomò nǎichá): "foam milk tea". One of the many variants that is prepared the same way as the "foam red tea", well-shaken before serving.
- 珍珠奶茶 or 珍奶 for short) (pinyin: zhēnzhū nǎichá): "pearl milk tea", or more commonly referred to as bubble tea by most English speakers and overseas Chinese speakers. The "pearl" name originally referred to the small 1/12" tapioca pearls added to the drink. Though most modern vendors serve only the bigger 1/4" pearls, they still use "pearl tea" as the name.
- 波霸奶茶 (pinyin: bōbà nǎichá): "bubble milk tea" and also commonly referred to as boba tea by English speakers and Asian Americans. The name refers to the variant with the bigger, 1/4" tapioca pearls.
- 黑珍珠奶茶 (pinyin: hēi zhēnzhū nǎichá): "black pearl milk tea". Since the bigger 1/4" tapioca pearls are separately sold as "black pearls" (黑珍珠) in markets, this name was the logical first choice and is more popular with the consumers of the drink. "Boba" (波霸) is an alternative name that is less commonly used these days.
- (奶)茶珍珠 (pinyin: (nǎi) chá zhēnzhū): "(milk) tea pearl" (less common).
- 泡泡茶 (pinyin: pào pào chá): used interchangeably with 珍珠奶茶 to refer to "bubble tea" in Singapore.
Tapioca pearls, milk powder, and juice syrups have in the past been found to contain banned chemical additives. In May 2011, a food scandal broke out in Taiwan where DEHP (a chemical plasticizer and potential carcinogen used to make plastic) was found as a stabilizer in drinks and juice syrups. Some of these products may have been exported and used in bubble tea shops around the world. DEHP can affect hormone balances. In June 2011, the Health Minister of Malaysia, Liow Tiong Lai, instructed companies selling "Strawberry Syrup", a material used in some bubble teas, to stop selling them after chemical tests showed they were tainted with a carcinogen identified as DEHP.
In August 2012, scientists from the Technical University of Aachen (RWTH) in Germany analyzed bubble tea samples within a research project to look for allergenic substances. The result indicated that the products contain styrene, acetophenone and brominated substances. The report was published by German newspaper Rheinische Post and caused Taiwan's representative office in Germany to issue a statement, saying food items in Taiwan are monitored. Taiwan's Food and Drug Administration confirmed in September that in a second round of tests conducted by German authorities, Taiwanese bubble tea was found to be free of cancer-causing chemicals. The products were also found to contain no excessive levels of heavy-metal contaminants or other health-threatening agents.
In May 2013 the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration issued an alert on the detection of maleic acid, an unapproved food additive, in some food products, including tapioca pearls. The Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore conducted its own tests and found additional brands of tapioca pearls and some other starch-based products sold in Singapore were similarly affected.
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- Media related to Bubble tea at Wikimedia Commons