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Foodscapes Near Me

Tapioca pearls’ textured history

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Foodscapes Near Me

Editor’s note: “Foodscapes Near Me” is a biweekly food anthropology column that explores the origins and evolution of dishes particular to college cuisine.

Whether you call it boba, bubble tea, or any of its countless other names, this popular drink is quickly becoming as ubiquitous as your neighborhood Starbucks. Just like Seattle coffee culture, bubble tea has amassed devotees with fierce loyalty to their preferred sellers and strong opinions on what your go-to order says about your personality. The drink can be found in big cities and college towns alike, and is all over social media. From classic milk teas to fruit smoothies and even boba pizza, bubble tea drinks have taken the world by storm.

Although there are endless variations of the drink, including some without tea, the star of the show has always been the tapioca pearls, commonly known as boba.

Boba’s satisfying chewy-bouncy texture is certainly not unique in its native Taiwan. Texture is an element of Taiwanese cuisine that is as highly valued as flavor, particularly the soft, springy texture known as “Q” or tan ya, meaning “rebound teeth.” While boba now comes in a range of colors, flavors, and sizes, one thing that has remained the same since its use in bubble tea is the irresistible “Q” texture.

Some may not know that bubble tea originates in Taiwan and is a product of Taiwan’s legacy as a cultivator of high-quality teas.

The first tea seedlings were reportedly brought to the island by Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century. Taiwan’s climate was perfect for tea cultivation, especially varieties of high-mountain oolong. It quickly became an important export commodity up until the 1980s, when increasing economic prosperity propelled domestic demand for tea. By then, most of Taiwan’s tea was being used to serve the thriving tea house culture that had emerged. 

While the term “bubble tea” is typically associated with the shape of boba, some claim the term indicates alternative origins. Shou yao, or “hand-shaken” tea, first appeared in Taiwanese tea houses in the early 1980s, and was a variation on traditional brewed teas that was sweetened with a dash of simple syrup and shaken with ice in a cocktail shaker. Shaking the tea formed a layer of foam on the top of the drink, which led some to refer to it as bubble tea.

There remains dispute as to who first added boba to the tea. Tu Tsong He claims that his tea shop, Hanlin, which opened in 1986, was the first to do so. In his search to develop an innovative product that would set his tea shop apart from other competitors, Tu visited a local market where he encountered fenyuan, a popular dessert made of sweetened tapioca balls often served over ice or pudding. He added the dessert to his green tea and called it zhen zhu lu cha, or “pearl green tea,” in reference to the pearl-like color and shape of the tapioca he used.

Lin Hsiu Hui, product manager at the popular tea chain Chun Shui Tang, also claims to have invented the drink in the late 1980s. Purportedly, at a lengthy staff meeting, Hui poured her fenyuan dessert into her Assam black tea, which became an instant hit among the attendees. The creation was given a spot on the Chun Shui Tang menu, where it quickly outsold all the other iced tea offerings in the span of a few months. 

Regardless of the inventor, bubble tea’s popularity in Taiwan quickly skyrocketed, with a United States craze beginning shortly after in the 1990s.

From the 1960s to ’90s, waves of Taiwanese immigrants settled in enclaves across California, with many of them opening restaurants and groceries. Originally, bubble tea was served in these Taiwanese restaurants as an afterthought to the meal, but by the late 1990s, the first dedicated boba shop was opened in a food court in Arcadia, California. 

By the early 2000s, a number of boba shops had opened on the West Coast, including prominent chains like Tapioca Express and Lollicup. These establishments mainly served standard bubble tea flavors from tea mixes and powdered non-dairy creamers. In the mid 2010s, a new wave of bubble tea shops arrived with an emphasis on artisanal drinks and a focus on fresh ingredients, creative combinations, additional toppings, and even alternative milks. New variations on the drink began to appear, including alcohol-infused boba, coffee and fruit-based boba beverages, and the introduction of toppings like grass jelly, aloe, egg custard, red beans, and cheese foam. 

It’s unclear when bubble tea first came to Seattle, but the drink has undeniably become a regional staple. Seattle Best Tea, a Taiwanese-style tea house that opened in 1996, added bubble tea to its menu in 2008 to supplement the sale of loose-leaf teas. Lydia Lin, vice president of Seattle Best Tea, believes that bubble tea’s popularity will continue to rise as customers take more of an interest in the quality and culture of tea. 

“Bubble tea people will often come in here and buy small portions of [loose leaf] tea,” Lin said. “People getting tea learn about the culture of tea too.”

Bubble tea has become increasingly popular amongst college students, evidenced by the dozen or so boba shops in the U-District alone. Whether you prefer local establishments like Oasis Tea Zone or WOW Bubble Tea or internationally-recognized brands like Ding Tea or Don’t Yell At Me, chances are you’ve found yourself hanging out with friends sipping on bubble tea in one of these shops before. 

Angela He, incoming president of the UW Taiwanese Student Association, can attest to the drink’s popularity, as it is a prominent feature at the club’s annual Night Market event. He attributes boba’s high demand on college campuses to its convenience and cost-effectiveness.

“I feel like boba is super casual, so whenever you're hanging out with friends, it's always like, ‘Oh, let's get some boba,’” He said. “It's super cost-effective and really quick, so you don't have to like to sit down and eat a whole meal.”

Whether you’re a bubble tea traditionalist and opt for classic flavors or find yourself partial to new-wave creations like strawberry matcha, it’s safe to say that the drink’s customizability, rich history, and increasing ubiquity have made it a new staple of the American foodscape.

Reach columnist Taylor Zachary at Twitter: @trzzachary

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