A Brief History of Boba

It could be the creamy milky tea or the texture of the Tapioca Balls. Or it could just be the satisfaction of popping a straw into the plastic cap. Boba).

What is Boba, and what does it do?

Bubble tea, like the sweet and creamy Thai Iced Tea, is a popular tea that has gained popularity not only in Taiwan but also abroad. Bubble tea is more precious and creamier than traditional tea, which is pleasantly bitter and tannic. The U.S. has a plethora of bubble tea shops. What are the origins and inspirations behind Boba? Who on earth thought of adding tapioca to tea?


History of Boba Tea

The origins of Boba are still debated. Taiwan was already a tea-drinking nation, and milk tea was well known. At the time, both shaved-ice and tapioca were common desserts. Someone at some point thought of combining three popular ingredients into one drink — tapioca ball on the bottom followed by a layer of shaved ice and milk tea for the remainder.


It is believed that the word “boba,” which is Taiwanese for breasts, was derived from Chinese characters. Boba has evolved as it became more popular in Taiwan. Stall owners began to introduce fruit boba using fruit syrups and powders instead of real fruit (which is too expensive and spoils quickly). Tapioca balls were replaced by other toppings such as almond jelly, grass jelly, red beans, and egg pudding. The milk in milk tea is substituted with non-dairy milk creamer in classic Boba. This gives the drink its sweet, creamy flavor.

How to make boba Tea

While boba making is easy, tapioca preparation requires some care and attention. Tapioca is sold as a dry product and needs to be boiled for 30 minutes before cooling for another 30. It is important not to burn the tapioca pearls for too long. This will result in squishy, sticky Boba. If they are too hard, they will be difficult to chew. Boba’s life and death depend on the texture of tapioca. In Chinese, there’s a word that describes perfect consistency — “QQ,” which means chewy.


Each cup of Boba begins with a scoop of tapioca, then the tea or juice, and finally, a lot of ice. Special ribbed cups, wide-mouthed straws for fitting the tapioca ball, and seals that are made specifically for bubble tea are available. Sealing machines will do the work automatically. Many modern boba shops have tea and syrup dispensers that allow customers to choose the sweetness of their drink.


Bin Chen, the founder of Boba Guys and the popular boba brand, says bubble tea is gaining popularity because the tapioca ball makes it lighter, sweeter, and more enjoyable than regular tea. He also says that the sheer variety of options has always appealed to people. Every time I went to a boba store, there was always a sense of excitement. The traditional tea-making process is often ceremonious and sacred. However, Boba’s playful approach has made it a popular product that appeals to both adults and children.


Boba in Taiwanese, American, and other cultures

In Taiwan, the night markets are a popular place to buy groceries and snacks after work. There are hundreds of food stands. Chen says that Boba is a staple in the night markets, where food trends come and go. He says that when you walk from stall to stall, you will see everyone carrying a boba drink, whether it’s a milk or fruit tea.


In the 1990s, Boba became popular in the U.S. as a result of the large number of immigrants from Taiwan and the increasing popularity of the cafe culture thanks to Starbucks. Chen says that “[Starbucks] paved the way for the midday pick me up.” “When they began offering frappuccinos as well as coffee, this really opened the door for other types of drinks.”


It was only a matter of time before places like Boba Guys, which offer high-quality teas and real milk in a relaxed, comfortable atmosphere, became popular. Chen believes that people are getting used to chewy bits because drinks such as aloe and coconut water have become more popular.


He’s still surprised at how quickly bubble tea has captured the attention of American consumers. He compares bubble tea to sushi: it started as a foreign food tradition but was eventually absorbed into American culture. He says that if he had told people 20 years ago, “one of the most popular drinks would be a chewable tea,” they would have been skeptical. Chen’s wager on tapioca ball paid off, and, given the past decade, the trend is likely to continue spreading across the globe. He tells me that Boba is a cultural bridge.


Correction: This article was updated on April 28th, 2021. The boba tea trend didn’t necessarily die down in the early 2000s.