All About Boba

By Derek Lin
July 30, 2018

Boba tea is the quintessential drink from Taiwan, some would say. With its sweet tea taste, wide straws, and of course, those rounded tapioca pearls—called boba—at the bottom. But the word “boba” seems to have taken on a new meaning these days, and I’m not just talking about how it can refer to the entire drink instead of just the pearls. Culturally, it has become quite symbolic. Given that its roots run back to Taiwan, it is a staple for people who reside there but an emotional connection for people who reside here (in the States). Personally as a Taiwanese American, it feels like part of my cultural upbringing—and it might for you too. So let’s take a deeper look into this prevalent drink!

Credit: Hiroaki Kaneda / Pixabay under Pixabay License. Version by: Derek Lin

It’s a natural occurrence here in California, but what are its origins? There are two places in Taiwan who claim rights to this revolutionary phenomenon: the Hanlin Team Room and the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse. But as far as legend has it, the prevailing story has to do with the Chun Shui Tang Teahouse. This is where in the 1980s, a staff member named Lin Hsiu Hui put sweetened tapioca pudding (called fen yuan) into her iced tea for fun. It proved to be quite the popular combination and thus, boba tea was born.

Credit: 春水堂 Chun Shui Tang

Boba tea is typically made up of a type of tea, a sweetener (e.g. sugar, honey), and a portion of tapioca pearls. There are many variations though nowadays, and milk or creamer (in liquid or powder form) is often added to make the drink a milk tea. There are also a plethora of flavors that come in the form of different powders and syrups, though fresh fruits can be used as well. As for the tapioca pearls, those are derived from starch taken from cassava root. Brown sugar is usually added to this starch, which is where the black color of the pearls comes from.

Sweetener, creamer, syrup, and brown sugar. Yes, I too found myself counting the multitude of ingredients in this drink that could raise my blood pressure. The unfortunate reality is that boba tea is loaded with lots of sugars. The total calorie count is an unpleasant number to look at—one drink can easily be 300 calories! So it’s only natural for us to inquire about overall health when it comes to boba tea, and in 2012 that’s exactly what a German university did. They came out with a study showing their discovery of cancer-causing chemicals (called PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls) in a batch of boba from Taiwan. However, this was later disproven, with the FDA confirming that the chemicals found were legal synthetic substances added in food, and not PCBs.

Credit: Jason Leung / Unsplash under Unsplash License. Version by: Derek Lin

A bit of a scare there considering how popular this drink is, so let’s move on to some fun facts!

  1. Boba tea can also be called “bubble tea.” But the “bubbles” aren’t referring to the round tapioca pearls at the bottom, they’re referring to the foam at the top that forms when the drink is shaken during preparation!
  2. Perhaps you have heard boba (tapioca pearls) being described as “Q” or “QQ.” This is the phonetic pronunciation of the Taiwanese word for “chewy,” and it describes the consistency of something edible in a positive light.
  3. Tapioca pearls are typically black, but you may have encountered white ones. These are pearls that only contain cassava root, with no addition of brown sugar.

There’s a lot more to boba tea than meets the eye. Personally I see it as an item associated with many of my good memories, on top of it being just a drink to enjoy. It is similarly a point of relevance for many people who identify as Taiwanese, in different—but equally significant—ways. So let us continue to celebrate this wondrous drink!

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