The first time I was introduced to bubble tea was in California. A friend asked if I had ever had it before, but I hadn't — though I was puzzled by the name. Soon after she had me and others all sitting at a bubble tea shop, holding various flavored cups of creamy fruit-flavored tea with “pearls” bouncing along in the bottom of the cup, which were sucked through fat straws and ended with a dramatic pop into the mouth.

It was strangely delicious – kind of like a creamy smoothie with chewy balls in it.

A drink of many names

Bubble tea is one of many popular names for this beverage, and it's also called tapioca pearl drink, tapioca ball drink, pearl shake, pearl tea, black pearl tea, big pearl, boba tea, boba ice tea, boba nai cha, milk tea, bubble drink, zhen zhu nai cha, momi, momi milk tea, as well as others.

History of the drink

Unlike many other beverages, this drink is a recent invention, first created in the 1980s in Taiwan. As always, there are a variety of people who claim to have first invented this drink phenomenon, but it soon spread from Taiwan to other Asian countries, and more recently to the U.S. In 2012, McDonalds started serving Bubble Tea in Germany and Austria, showing how far the fad has spread and how popular this drink is.

What's in it

It started with a tea base that was sweetened, which included tapioca pearls and perhaps condensed milk, but now there are endless variations. Everything from melon, strawberry, taro, chocolate, sesame, almond, rose, lavender, coffee and tea can be used to flavor the drink. Some of the versions are thin, sweetened tea versions while others are rich and thick — similar to a milkshake or smoothie.

While it doesn’t have to have some sort of milk (dairy or non-dairy), they generally do at the places in Portland and California where I’ve had it.

More on the pearls

While tapioca balls are the most popular, there are many other options as well, such as green pearls (they have a green tea flavor), or jelly made out of fermented coconut water, fruits, teas or konjac. Besides jelly there are balls made out of aloe, egg custards, sago and taro.

Health concerns

Besides the usual sugar and high calories concerns some have with the drink, there is a specific warning that comes with pearl tea — the danger of choking for young children. These tapioca balls are much bigger than the ones you typically see, and young children are especially prone to choking on them.

Beyond that, there has been concern over substances in tapioca pearls from Taiwan that shouldn’t be in food, some of which could be cancer-causing. This makes me want to try a less-traditional version with American-sourced tapioca instead.

As always, the basic ingredients of this tea could be really healthy — sometimes it’s advantages are simply drowned in too much sweetener, artificial flavor, and processed ingredients. For that reason, I am going to experiment with making my own version at home. I’ll post a recipe once I have one that I like!

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What is bubble tea?
Have you heard of bubble tea, yet? Here's what you need to know about the drink that's becoming popular around the world.