Taro Balls and Tea
A rich, milky, thick cup of tea, filled with dark spheres of squishy, chewy pearls. That is bubble tea! You may have wondered, while you chew the chewy dark bubbles found at the bottom of the sweet and slightly bitter black milk tea, who came up with this one? While stories of type and variety of tea go back hundreds of years, sometimes even thousands, the story of bubble tea actually goes back to the ancient, mythical, and mysterious era of the 1980s…
The History of Bubble Tea
When it comes to tea, the exact origins always seem to be steeped (hah!) in some mystery, often with multiple locations, originators, and backstories involved. The same goes for bubble tea. The two competing claims are from the Hanlin Tea room in Tainan, Taiwan, and the Chun Shui Tang tearoom in Taichung, Taiwan which we had the pleasure of visiting on our trip to Taiwan.
According to Hanlin Tea Room, back in 1986, Tu Tsong-He who was the teahouse owner at the time invented the drink. He saw tapioca balls in the Ya Mu Liao market and decided to add them to black milk tea. This was the “pearl tea” genesis, or at least it was according to Hanlin! The Hanlin Tea Room then switched from white to black tea pearls that are mixed with brown sugar and honey. However, the option for black or white pearls is still available in some places today.
Chun Shui Tang’s story
The tea room’s founder, Liu Han-Chieh claims he first started serving Chinese tea cold after visiting Japan and witnessing the famous Japanese iced, cold brew, and Dutch brew coffee back in the 80s. This novel tea style resulted in some new locales opening as chains under the teahouse’s umbrella. But the real inventor is credited as Lin Hsiu Hui, who was the product development manager at the teahouse. In 1988, while attending a supposedly boring meeting, she decided to dump her fen yuan, which are the sweet confectionary tapioca balls into her cold tea. The result was a hit and became a wildly popular drink at the teahouse and the rest of Taiwan.
As both stories go, whoever the inventor is, the place of origin is certainly in Taiwan and certainly sometime in the mid-80s. After gaining fame in Taiwan, the drink exploded in popularity in the 90s.
First in southern China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia where you’ll now find a Gongcha on every corner. The cold tea along with the sweet pearls made the perfect drink to enjoy in the often hot and humid climate of these regions.
Milk tea had already been a popular drink in these areas, too. So adding some ice and sweet chewiness just made a popular drink option even more beloved. Next, bubble tea became a hit in other parts of Asia, then, the world, first making landfall in many countries outside Asia via Asian immigrant and diaspora communities.
Today, one can find bubble tea all over the world and in many different venues. The beverage is also known as pearl milk tea, bubble milk tea, and boba tea. The tea of choice was originally black tea as it is commonly used in milk tea. However green and Oolong varieties can be found, too! And in addition to the original iced milk tea with the chewy and delicious pearls, there are also hot and frappe style bubble teas that offer other options of ingredients and accoutrements to really up the sweet and tasty factor!
How to Make Bubble Tea at Home
So now that your interests in this novel and delectable drink have been piqued, you may want to try your hand at making some at home and it couldn’t be easier/
What you will need
- Tapioca pearls: You can get frozen bags of these, just make sure to follow their thawing and preparation instructions or bags from most Asian convenience stores. I like using these quick cook ones which take about five minutes of boiling to be perfect.
Tip: You can also buy quick cook and normal variety bubbles (and straws) on Sous Chef if you live in Europe of the UK and can get £10 off with this code.
- Sweetener: Brown sugar, black sugar and honey are great options to sweeten the pearls
- Black tea, feel free to swap out for your tea of choice, but black tea is the original tea used in bubble tea!
- Filtered or purified water
- Milk, preferably thicker milk or half & half
- Ice – although I also like it hot!
- Extra-wide straws for drinking the tapioca pearls or a spoon
What to do
1. First, prepare your tapioca pearls by following their thawing and boiling instructions as per their packaging
2. Prepare your syrup for the tapioca pearls by adding 1/4 cup of hot water to 1/4 cups of brown sugar. Stir until the sugar granules have all dissolved. I sometimes just like to drop some honey on them (which also makes for a tasty dessert)
3. Now it is time to brew your tea! Because we want cold tea for this chilly drink, brew your tea ahead of time or set it to cool someplace it will chill swiftly. Ideally, strong black tea is used, so 2-4 teabags are used. This will be very bitter so feel free to start with just 2 teabags of black tea the first time. Use less water so the flavour is strong and not watery when added with the other ingredients!
4. Now that all your ingredients have cooled, add the pearls and their sugar syrup to the bottom of your cup.
5. Now add some ice and your cold tea. If you prefer it hot then you can just put your freshly cooked tea in
6. Top it all off with some rich and creamy milk and feel free to give the whole thing a few stirs to mix your ingredients together.
7. Finally, enjoy your delicious and frosty tea treat! If you have extra-wide straws, use these, otherwise, you can use a spoon to scoop the pearls out. Or commit the sacrilege of throwing them all out!
Tip: For a richer bubble tea, I sometimes brew the tea in milk to make it more of a latte style.
Bubble tea anytime
A rich, silky, and satisfyingly chewy bubble tea is great at any time of day and on any occasion. While certainly a staple of hot weather, try a hot variation for when the weather cools off a bit. Your bubble tea, your way. And as you enjoy your bubble tea feel free to thank either Hanlin Tea Room or Chun Shui Tang tearoom. Or both, for that matter!
Jess is the creator and editor of Books and Bao. She's passionate about the world, its literature, food, culture, and people. She enjoys sharing her travel tips with others and capturing those perfect moments.