My first encounter with tapioca milk tea
Shortly after I had come to Japan as an exchange student in autumn 2008, my university celebrated its annual campus festival. I helped out at the exchange students’ booth where I was first introduced to tapioca milk tea. My job was to promote the tea by shouting “How about some Taiwanese tapioca milk tea?” for hours – and in between, I had a view cups of this curious beverage myself.
A couple of months into my first semester, I realized that our university’s “crêpe car” – a mobile vendor who visited the campus during the lunch break on a regular basis – also sold this beverage. The vendor called it “bubble tea” and offered various flavours. I particularly loved taro flavour at that time, which strictly speaking was not actually tea, but still delicious. I was surprised to find that the crêpe car served bubble tea both hot or cold, depending on the season.
A few months after my return to my hometown Vienna, I had another encounter with bubble tea at a local market. I spoke with the vendor who told me that she had just started importing large-sized tapioca bubbles to Austria and was hoping to start a tea house for bubble tea. Several months later, in 2010, a first bubble tea store in Vienna, called “Tea-licious” opened – however I don’t know if it was run by the same person.
At that time, my mother told me that she had actually known tapioca for a long time – however only the small-scale tapioca balls. Apparently, they had been a popular ingredient for making pudding when I was a child and I used to really like them back then. When she told me that story, I realized that in Chinese restaurants in Austria, tapioca pudding is still a popular dessert, often served in combination with coconut flavoured pudding.
What is tapioca milk tea or bubble tea?
The most prominent ingredient of bubble tea / tapioca milk tea (珍珠奶茶, zhēnzhū nǎichá) is tapioca “boba” balls. These are made from tapioca flour and sugar and are cooked for a long time before being added to cold tea (sometimes also hot) tea or other sweet beverages. Tapioca starch originated in South America but became popular in South East and East Asia when it was introduced during the colonial period. Thanks to its similarity to the native sago desserts, tapioca was easily accepted.
As for the tea, milk teas with sweet condensed milk or coconut milk are popular, but many bubble tea vendors or tea houses also serve teas without milk.
If you are interested in bubble tea recipes, I can recommend this page.
History of bubble tea / tapioca milk tea
As I learned during my year studying in Japan, bubble tea originally derived from Taiwan, where it was invented in the 1980s. Several teahouses claim to have invented the beverage, one of them being Chun Shui Tang Teahouse in Taichung (春水堂人文茶館, est. 1987). The teahouse’s product development manager started experimenting with cold teas after she saw coffee being served cold in Japan. The story goes that one day she put a tapioca dessert into cold tea on a whim and thus invented the bubble tea. Another teahouse claiming to be the inventor of bubble tea is Hanlin Tea Room in Tainan (翰林茶館, 1986).
We will never know who the real inventor was, however the story of Chun Shui Tang Teahouse seems to be featured more often in magazine articles and blogs.
The new drink started gaining popularity quickly, and tea vendors popped up everywhere. In the 1990s, bubble tea could be found in several countries in East- and Southeast Asia and even in San Francisco. Nowadays, countless franchises sell bubble tea at street stalls, in shopping malls or at stations throughout Asia and the world.
As for the popularity of bubble tea in San Francisco, an article in the food and dining network Eater (Nov. 2019) titled “The Rise (and Stall) of the Boba Generation” explains the strong identity-building effect of this beverage for young Asian-Americans is “who grew up hanging out every day in boba shops, where they studied, gossiped with friends, and went on first dates, all over the cold, milky, tapioca ball-filled drink that is bubble tea.”
As far as I could observe, bubble tea is part of an Asian or Asian-influenced lifestyle that is also influenced by pop and comic book culture. In Japan, this is part of the so-called kawaii culture (kawaii 可愛い meaning “cute”), characterized by a preference for pastel colours, cute characters such as Hello Kitty etc (in Cantonese the loanword “kawaii [卡哇伊]” is also popular and kawaii culture part of Taiwanese “teenage” lifestyle). Different flavours of bubble tea turn a beautiful pastel colour by adding milk, and vendors also like to rely on visually appealing and cute designs for their shops and products to appeal to this cultural trend.
The beverage is so iconic, that artists on social media, such as Instagram even use it as their inspiration for their artwork, and this year (2020) a bubble tea emoji will be added to the Unicode standard list of emoji for smartphones and tablets.
Criticism towards “bubble tea” and a short end of the tapioca story in my home country Austria
Since I have briefly mentioned my home country of Austria above, I would like to add that the success story of bubble tea in Austria was in fact quite short.
In Central Europe, drinking tea is associated primarily with health, as people drink herbal tea as a remedy for all kinds of health problems. With their high levels of sugar and artificial colouring, some bubble teas are closer to soft drinks than to actual tea and are far removed from the idea of a “healthy drink”.
The tapioca bubbles pose a problem as well: the German foundation for consumer protection Stiftung Warentest even stated that they may pose a risk of suffocation. They concluded their crushing assessment of the beverage stating that “Contrary to what the name and marketing strategy suggest, bubble tea is not a natural tea drink, but an artificial soft drink with synthetic colours and flavours. In addition, the high sugar content makes it a real carb bomb. Bubble tea can be prepared by anyone who simply adds too much for sugar, colours and flavours.”
However, the last part indicates that depending on the preparation, bubble tea can in fact be an enjoyable beverage that isn’t necessarily unhealthy – it all depends on the ingredients. Personally, I really enjoy bubble tea, even though I would not regard it as “tea”, since only some of them are made from actual tea leaves. I would rather classify them as a dessert, which – like any sweet dish – should not be consumed every day.
Unfortunately, the negative press soon gave bubble tea a bad reputation in Austria, and within only a few years most of the shops closed down, such as Austria’s oldest and most popular bubble tea house “Tea-licious”. Today, a tentative new start can be observed, with small tea shops opening throughout Vienna which also have this beverage on their menus. One of them is the Teastories tea house.
Recent innovations (observed in Thailand)
When I moved to Thailand in 2016, I was surprised to discover countless variations of bubble tea. Most of them are actually so far removed from the drink’s origin as tea that I would like to call them “drinkable tapioca desserts”.
They are still a lot of fun to consume so I would like to highlight some of my favourite fancy ingredients: azuki beans, fresh passion fruit pulp and nata de coco. One ingredient I could not come to like was “popping bubbles” made from gelatine with a liquid filling. Other popular toppings are whipped cream, “cheese” (cream cheese with whipped cream and sugar) or crème brullée which add even more to the feeling of having a sweet dessert.
Here’s a fun fact for everyone who read until the end: The term “boba” refers to the busty Hong Kong actress Amy Yip (*1966) who was popular around the time when bubble tea gained popularity.
What is your favourite bubble tea flavour or topping? Please let me know in the comments below.
Baltaci, Köksal “Der Todeskampf der Bubble-Tea-Shops” (2012.12.13) in: Die Presse. https://www.diepresse.com/1311775/der-todeskampf-der-bubble-tea-shops (Accessed 2020-06-26).
Demmer, Georg “Weltuntergang für tea-licious” (2012.12.15) in: Tee Blog. Demmers Blog für Tee und Genuss. http://teeblog.at/weltuntergang-fuer-tea-licious-2/ (Accessed 2020-06-26).
HT Correspondent “Dodo, ninja, bubble tea and 114 other emojis you are going to get in 2020” (2020-01-30) in: HT Tech. https://www.hindustantimes.com/tech/dodo-ninja-bubble-tea-and-114-other-emojis-you-are-going-to-get-in-2020/story-fZM7WHdf64ir6obydAzTfI.html (Accessed 2020-06-26).
Jones, Edward “Who invented bubble tea?” (2018-11-13) in: Taipei Times. http://www.taipeitimes.com/News/feat/archives/2018/11/13/2003704115 (Accessed 2020-06-26).
Sous Chef “Everything You Need To Know About Bubble Tea” in: Sous Chef. https://www.souschef.co.uk/blogs/the-bureau-of-taste/everything-you-need-to-know-about-bubble-tea (Accessed 2020-06-26).
Stiftung Warentest “Bubble Tea. Dickmacher aus Fernost.” (2012.07.20) in: Stiftung Warentest. https://www.test.de/Bubble-Tea-Dickmacher-aus-Fernost-4406065-4406070/ (Accessed 2020-06-26).
Zhang, Jenny G. “The Rise (and Stall) of the Boba Generation. How bubble tea became far more than just a drink to young Asian Americans” (2019-11-05) in: Eater. https://www.eater.com/2019/11/5/20942192/bubble-tea-boba-asian-american-diaspora (Accessed 2020-06-26).