We all know that bubble tea (aka “black pearl tea” or “boba tea”) is a beloved Taiwan classic that was invented way back in the 80s. These days, there are countless variations using all kinds of drink base (from premium tea to coffee and juices) as well as a variety of “bubbles” that can be made from anything from tapioca to agar. You can also find the familiar tapioca pearls appearing in non-drink menus, from pizzas to even instant noodles.
Bubble tea orders in Southeast Asia recorded a 3,000% increase in 2018 alone, according to Grab. The biggest consumers are the Thais who consume six cups of bubble tea per person per month, while Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam, and Indonesia average at three cups per person per month.
Shaken, not stirred
When bubble tea first came onto the scene, it was common to see it served shaken to the point of being foamy. This is why it’s called “bubble” tea – or pao pao cha.
The roots of this traces back to the 1940s in Taiwan when mixologist Chang Fan Shu started selling tea that was hand-shaken (shou yao) with cocktail shakers. In the 1980s, entrepreneurs followed suit, selling bubble tea that’s been shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker – some bubble tea stalls even had a machine just to shake the tea (it wasn’t uncommon to find a stuffed doll tied to the machine for visual effect). When bubble tea first exploded onto the scene in Singapore in the 90s you could see these machine shakers, although not much these days.
Why is it called Pearl Milk Tea?
The most common item on a bubble tea menu is the Pearl Milk Tea (zhen zhu nai cha), which refers to the tapioca pearls in the drink. But the name didn’t originally refer to the current black pearls you see.
Its origin dates back to 1986, when Taiwanese entrepreneur Tu Tsong He was inspired to add the traditional fenyuan (tapioca balls) he saw at a night market into the green teas he sold. The fenyuan were white and almost translucent, and when placed in the tea, they resembled pearl necklaces, hence the name, zhen zhu (pearl).
Birth of the bubble
Everybody loves their black pearls, and you can judge the quality of a bubble tea store by the quality of their pearls – if it breaks down in your mouth in 2 bites, it’s probably a bit stale or has been overcooked. Some stores make fresh batches of pearls regularly.
To make them, tapioca flour is cooked in hot water with sugar, for up to three hours. The added sugar can give the balls an estimate of 160 calories per quarter-cup serving. A study found that some bubble milk teas ordered with 100% sugar can have up to 370 calories or 20.5 teaspoons of sugar (it’s recommended that adults take no more than 8 teaspoons of sugar a day). While gluten-free, the little balls contain a lot of carbs, minus the fibre.
Bubble tea’s pearls are made from tapioca flour, which is a processed product. Tapioca contains cyanide, which means the wastewater used to process the tapioca contains this poisonous. Water pollution from tapioca manufacturing has been a problem in many countries in Southeast Asia.
Large amounts of water is needed to produce tapioca flour, and if this water is leaked into bodies of water containing aquatic life, there is a direct effect on fish and possibly other animals in this polluted water.
In Chinese, the word boba (波霸) is a combination of “bubble” and “big,” and when put together, becomes a slang for “big breasts” or “buxom lady”.
Some theories point its origin to a popular 80s Hong Kong movie star and sex symbol Amy Yip, whose nickname was Boba thanks to her buxom build.
Beware the additives
Additives are added during the tapioca flour making process. These include sulfuric acid which is a bleaching agent; aluminum sulfate for increasing the viscosity of the flour; and sulfur dioxide to separate the starch from other unwanted substances and regulating microbial and enzymatic reactions.
In 2013, the Singapore’s AVA recalled tapioca balls from bubble tea shops after 11 kinds of Taiwanese starch additives that contained maleic acid – which is known to induce kidney damage – were discovered.
Bubble tea horror stories
An 18-year-old girl in China was nicknamed ‘Bubble Tea Girl’ for her love of the drink, after it was discovered that her blood sugar levels was roughly 25 times higher than normal. In 2020, she fell into a diabetic coma caused by hyperglycemia, or dangerously high levels of blood sugar, and was put on a ventilator before finally waking up 5 days later. Weighing in at 125kg, she had lost 35kg when she was discharged.
In 2019, a 14-year-old girl from China was admitted to the hospital with what looked like 100 bubble tea pearls accumulated in her intestines. However, they’re actually impacted feces, caused by eating tapioca pearls, which is glue-like and can cause feces to become sticky, leading to partial or total bowel obstruction.
Earlier that year, another hospital in China admitted a 13-year-old boy who couldn’t digest the starchy tapioca pearls in two cups of bubble tea. They formed two large lumps in his intestines that had to be removed in emergency surgery. Apparently he never chewed the pearls, swallowing them whole both times which caused the pearls to get stuck together.
In addition to the classic Pearl Milk Tea, many bubble tea chains have come up with inventive new ways to enjoy the drink. The most popular these days include ingredients like brown sugar in the drink, and milk (or cheese) foam on the top. There are also many versions of “pearls” – some made with agar, jelly, nata de coco, and more, to cater to a growing demand for healthier versions of the drink.
While having a full-sugar pearl milk tea is the most unhealthy, you can opt to have a healthier version. A cup of unsweetened black tea itself is actually healthy, but if you must have bubble tea, you can opt for one with low sugar, alternative pearls (like aloe vera), and fresh milk, preferably skimmed.
A lot of bubble tea these days use non-dairy creamer – a milk substitute that contains trans fat in the form of hydrogenated palm oil that’s been strongly correlated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.