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So What is Bubble Tea, Exactly? Battle of Boba vs. Bubble tea

We’ve been asked this so many times on our TikTok from our 100K+ curious followers, it’s time we address this through a post! Especially these days, the term seems to have a different meaning to everyone you ask. Does it have to include milk? Does fruit tea count? Does it always have tapioca?

Humble Beginnings

You’d be surprised to know that the “bubbles” actually don’t refer to tapioca at all! To explain this, let’s take a short trip back to when bubble tea was invented - the 1980s. There are arguments around who invented it first, but we know for sure that it originated in Taiwan.

The Hanlin Tea Room in Tainan claims that its owner, Tu Tsong-he, was inspired by white tapioca balls that he saw in a local market and included them in the tea that he was serving. To enhance the drink’s aesthetic, he later swapped this out for the black tapioca that we’re all familiar with today (which, by the way, is black because of the brown sugar added during the production process!).

Another popular claim comes from the Chun Shui Tang tearoom, whose owner Liu Han-Chieh claimed that seeing coffee served cold in Japan gave him the idea to try the same with tea. When his product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, accidentally poured some of her tapioca dessert (粉圆 - fen yuan) into her cold tea during an especially drab meeting, bubble tea was born. This quickly became the franchise’s top-selling product, and the drink continued to proliferate throughout Asia during the 90’s. Who knew that boredom could bring such fortune?

Bubble Tea as a Global Phenomenon

Bubble tea quickly spread from Taiwan to East Asia, and outwards to from there to Malaysia and Vietnam. It soon found its way into the hearts of North American cities like New York and Los Angeles, following Asian immigrant populations. It’s rumoured that everyone’s favourite Filipino fried chicken chain, Jollibee, jumpstarted this process in 1998 through their “Pearl Coolers”!

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Who knew that Jollibee helped make boba popular in North America?
PC: Jolibee USA

Now you can find boba in just about every major city - from the mainstays like CoCo and Chatime to specialty chains such as Xing Fu Tang, there’s something for everyone’s preference! Interestingly, you’ll hear people on the West Coast call it “boba” while the East Coast sticks with bubble tea. Who’s right is up to you - we tend to use both interchangeably!

Is Boba Healthy?

This always comes up, and it’s a tricky one to answer. Many of the more popular chains (think what you’d find in a mall) may not be the best choice if you’re looking to keep it healthy, since they often use powders, syrups, and artificial flavours to keep costs low. If you see unnaturally purple taro drinks, that’s normally a heads up that they’re using powder! The use of creamer as a dairy alternative is also common, which may not be great for your health due to the artificial ingredients and preservatives added to simulate dairy’s creaminess.

In cities with large Asian populations, you’ll find more options that use “the real deal” - we’re talking about fresh milk, real fruit, and handmade boba. While your guiding rule should always be “everything in moderation”, these boba shops are overall a pretty great choice when you’ve got a sweet tooth. The unrefined Chinese sugar (黑糖 - hei tang) that these stores used carries a higher mineral content and is often used in a medicinal context, so choices like brown sugar fresh milk from Xing Fu Tang are great - especially for women! Tru, our favourite Toronto born-and-raised shop, also hand steams and mashes Taro and purple yam each morning to create amazing drinks (Deluxe Purple Yam with taro tapioca, please!). This attention to detail goes a long way, and although the price is slightly more expensive, you’ll definitely taste the difference and your body will thank you for it!

Black Sugar Tea Wholesale Black Sugar Cubes - Buy High Quality ...

Hei tang aka black sugar brings many medicinal and skincare benefits. 
PC: Alibaba

Now that it’s summer, it’s also a great time to take advantage of fruit teas. Some boba purists may say that it has to have tapioca to be called a bubble tea (or boba) but for most people, you’ll hear the term use interchangeably to refer to milk tea, fresh milk with tapioca, and fruit teas. The natural sugars in the fruit let you tone down the added sugar in your drink, so you can sip on something delightfully refreshing without worry. We’re currently in love with a drink called Monet’s Garden from World Tea, another local Toronto shop, that was inspired by the beauty of Monet’s idyllic water scenes. For those of you not in Toronto, you can try making your own version at home by steeping jasmine tea overnight in cold water and adding fresh summer fruits like watermelon, orange, lemon, and lime! 

Claude Monet | Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies | The Met

Delicious fruit teas inspired by Monet's artwork.
PC: World Tea House, Met Museum

Boba at Home?

Even we would like to know the answer to this question, because we haven’t been able to recreate the taste of our favourite shops at home! We can “wing it” for fruit tea and come up with something enjoyable, but haven’t nailed milk tea yet. If you have a great recipe, let us know!

Making your own tapioca is another beast of its own. We made globs of tapioca, but not too sure if that counts as boba! We now have even more respect for the brands that make their own tapioca pearls every day!

Time for a Boba Break!

Now that you know about the history of boba, try to find a local shop or make your own recipe! Hopefully you’ve picked up a few tips from this article on how to spot a great shop. If you want to find the healthiest way to add boba into your life everyday, we recommend checking out one of our boba plushies! Let us know in the comments what your favourite drink is and what other articles you’d like to see in the future :)