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, from its origins, to different flavours and recipes to try at home.
What is bubble tea and where does it come from?
Bubble tea - also known as boba tea, pearl milk tea and in its native Taiwan, as zhēnzhū nǎichá (珍珠奶茶) - 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.
Types of bubble tea
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 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.
Foam Red Tea (pàomò hóngchá):
A less well-known type of tea, but still considered a classical type, foam red tea is simply a well-shaken black tea (referred to as red tea in Taiwan, Hong Kong and China), with lots of foamy air bubbles.
Foam Milk Tea (pàomò nǎichá):
The same as foam red tea, with the addition of milk.
Tea Pearl (chá zhēnzhū):
A rare milk-free version of pearl milk tea or bubble milk tea.
There are countless different ways in which these classic types can be customised and adapted. Different teas, including fruit teas, can be used in place of the standard red or black, and alternative milks like soy, oat or almond can also be added to the mix.
Popular variations in recent years include brown sugar tea, a highly Instagrammable marble-effect drink made from milky black pearl tea and brown sugar syrup. There are also bubble tea cocktails, bubble teas with egg custard pudding, and an ever-expanding selection of bubbles, with flavours ranging from the sweet and fruity to more unusual flavours like sea salt, cheese, mushroom, quinoa, tomato and Sichuan pepper.
Bubble tea variants
As well as the different types of bubble tea, there are a huge variety of different flavours, which are added to the bubble tea in liquid or powdered form, and often turn the liquid an attractive colour.
If you’re thinking of heading over to your local bubble tea shop, here are some of the most popular flavours you might expect to see:
Taro - a sweet root vegetable, also available as chewy balls to put into the tea alongside the bubbles.
There are also lots of different things you can add to your bubble tea, as well as the usual tapioca pearls or boba. Below is a list of some of the other goodies you can add to your drink alongside the tapioca bubbles:
Tapioca noodles - made from the same Q rich tapioca as the bubbles, these thin, chewy noodles are great for slurping up through your straw.
Popping boba - hollow boba that pop when chewed, releasing a burst of fruit juice. These are particularly popular in fruit flavoured bubble teas.
Jelly - chewy jelly cubes are sometimes added for even more Q. The most popular types are grass jelly, which is made from Chinese mesona and has a sweet, herbal flavour, aloe jelly, and coconut jelly.
Taro Balls - chewy balls made from cooked taro root. They are often an attractive purple colour, and add extra sweetness and chew.
Sweet Potato Balls - similar to taro balls, but made from sweet potato and orange in colour.
Pudding - a creamy egg custard pudding added to the bottom of the bubble tea. These are usually flavoured, with popular choices including coffee and taro.
Fresh Fruit - another popular addition, especially in fruit teas.
Red Bean - also known as adzuki beans, red beans are a popular dessert topping in many East Asian countries. They have a sweet, creamy, earthy flavour, and can be added dried or stirred into the drink as a paste.
Cookie Crumbs - Oreos are particularly popular.
Ice Cream - can be mixed in, or used as a topper.
Cheese Cream - not to be confused with cream cheese. A savoury topping made from cream and cheese powder.
Three recipes to make at home
If you want to try making your own bubble tea at home, it’s actually pretty simple. Most of the ingredients are everyday items, and tapioca bubbles can be purchased from your local Asian supermarket or ordered online.
For a classic bubble tea, we love this recipe from Healthy Nibbles and Bits. It has a simple, step-by-step guide, with advice on how to adapt the recipe to your own tastes.
If you prefer fruity flavours, this mango bubble tea from Recipe Marker is a tropical taste sensation, made with fresh mango and coconut milk.
Another fruity favourite, this honeydew melon bubble tea from Food is a Four Letter Word is a cool and refreshing treat, perfect for a hot summer’s day.
If you like your drinks with Instagram appeal, you’ll love the latest trend for lightbulb drinks - coming to a tea shop or smoothie bar near you soon.