There was a time when the sight of a person slurping up mysterious black balls from a slightly-bigger-than-average straw was reserved for the regulars at the local Asian supermarkets or the bustling street corners of any city's Chinatown. Admittedly, the tea drink must look exotic to those who grew up in small towns where frozen yogurt stores were hailed as "the next big thing." Boba tea, or bubble tea, is a quintessentially Taiwanese tea-based drink that incorporates tapioca balls that are chewed along with each sip. For close to 40 years, the East Asian dessert drink has risen in popularity, with stores like Boba Guys and Kung Fu Boba popping up on both U.S. coasts.
Boba tea broke onto the scene sometime in the 1980s, though its origins are somewhat shrouded in mystery thanks to two competing tales from two rival Taiwanese teahouses. Tainan's Hanlin Tea Room says the drink was born in 1986 when their founder, Tu Tsung-ho, found tapioca balls on sale at Tainan's Yamuliao market and added them to his milk tea at home.
Rival teahouse Chun Shui Tang believes it was a then-20-year-old employee named Lin Hsiu-hui who created the drink in 1987 when she "decided to dump her Taiwanese dessert called fen yuan — a sweetened tapioca pudding — into her Assam iced tea and drink it," according to Twinings, the tea company.
The boba tea phenomenon first migrated from Taiwan to the west coast of America in the 1990s, where it quickly became a fad in Taiwanese immigrant communities, assimilating into Taiwanese-American culture next and, from there, making its way into mainstream American society.
Regardless of who can actually take claim over boba tea, both origin stories include tapioca balls, a flash of inspiration and an extensive bout of experimentation that eventually gave the world what we now know as bubble tea.
Taiwan and Tapioca
Taiwan's special relationship with milk tea began in the 1940s when a former mixologist named Chang Fan Shu opened up a tea shop specializing in hand-shaken teas mixed in a cocktail shaker. The result of the furious shaking was a rich and frothy tea with light foam bubbles on top: bubble tea! So, what classifies tea as boba tea? Traditionally, it always included the four main elements of milk, ice, black tea and, of course, those chewy tapioca pearls that manage to stay perfectly suspended within their milky homes. Variations on the classic concoction involve non-milk-based teas (almond, cashew, and oat), green tea, white or oolong tea, condensed milk, fruit and special flavors like hibiscus, saffron, cardamom and rosewater. And the mushy, round pièce de résistance?
"Boba is made of tapioca, a starch extracted from the cassava root vegetable," says Aaron Yang, Vice President of Din Tai Fung Restaurant Group.
It always comes back to the pearls. Fun fact: tapioca pearls actually originate from Island Southeast Asia (a.k.a. Maritime Southeast Asia which includes the countries Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and East Timor) and are traditionally made from native starches like rice or palm hearts. Used in a variety of sweet and savory dishes, it wasn't until the introduction of bubble tea in the 1980s that boba went mainstream throughout the world.
Although boba tea had its origins in Taiwan, it has exploded in popularity around the world. Yang says their teas are brewed fresh every day and are still hand-shaken like they were in old times. To celebrate their Las Vegas debut, Din Tai Fung created the "spiced boba," made of a tantalizing combination of rum, ginger syrup, half and half, black tea and angostura bitters served with boba pearls.
It probably goes without saying that the boba teas of 2021 are a wee bit different than the original boba tea drinks served out of those tiny Taiwanese teahouses during the 1980s. Now, it's all about the toppings. Fruit, custard, red beans, jellies (everything from lychee to aloe vera), popping bubbles, puddings and even salted cheese that reportedly began "quite humbly as powdered cheese whipped into milk and topped with a sprinkle of salt," according to the Seattle Times. Boba tea has a couple of hallmark attributes of the perfect dessert: It's rich, thick, delicious and customizable to the nth degree.
We'll never know who's responsible for the boba tea craze — where it was Tu Tsung-ho or Lin Hsiu-hui — but with only 34 (or 35) years of history behind it, we very well could still be at the beginning stages of a full-on boba tea revolution. We've seen wild flavors inspired by childhood breakfast cereals from California's Boba Tea Lounge or The Fuego Mango topped with lemon-lime chili flakes and lychee jelly. No matter how you shake it, there's a boba tea out there for everybody.