What exactly is bubble tea?

Heather McBrien 

October 19, 2016

In 1988, the product development manager at Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taipei, Taiwan, poured a sweetened tapioca dessert into her tea at a staff meeting. She passed it around for everyone to try. It was delicious. This was only 30 years ago, but bubble tea’s popularity is still on the rise. After the critical incident, Chun Shui Tang fiddled around with the recipe and started serving the first true bubble tea, which was Assam tea shaken over ice with milk and sweetened (hence the bubbles). White tapioca balls, or “pearls” were added for the boba tea version. The most popular flavours we know now, like taro milk tea, matcha, jasmine milk tea, and honeydew milk tea, were developed soon after. Toppings like grass jelly, popping boba, lychee, coconut jelly, and red bean were added later.

It turns out each of these toppings and flavours have a somewhat unique origin story. Bubble tea is really an eclectic mix of ingredients that don’t just come from Taiwan. In this way, it’s a 21st century drink, only made possible by globalization.

Why the Tapioca?

Tapioca is a starch taken from the cassava root, which is native to northern Brazil. Originally used as a thickener in food and to make unleavened flatbread (casabe) in Brazil and other South American countries, it went global when Portuguese and Spanish explorers found the cassava plant. Easily cultivated in Taiwan, cassava quickly became very popular, and new and different ways of processing the starch resulted in tapioca pearls. Fen yuan—the dessert that was poured into tea to make bubble tea—uses tapioca pearls and coconut milk. Dye was added to get the black pearls used now in bubble tea.

Grass Jelly?

Grass jelly is native to Taiwan and other close countries in Asia. It is made by boiling a plant closely related to mint—Chinese mesona—with potassium carbonate and starch. It is then cooled to its jelly state. Like tapioca, dark colouring is added. Originally consumed on its own or with fruit, it gained popularity as bubble tea topping only ten years ago.


Native to parts of South Asia, taro is a root vegetable…but it’s really delicious. Taro powder has been used as flavouring in drinks for much longer than it has been in bubble tea.


Lychee fruit—the tropical and subtropical red fruit with white, aromatic flesh—is often sliced, preserved, and added to bubble tea. It is also used in flavouring popping bobas, flavouring tapioca, and as a tea flavour itself.


Apparently, matcha was one of the first non-black tea flavours of bubble tea, made at the original Chun Shui Tang teahouse. Cold matcha tea was inspired by the owner’s trip to Japan, where he saw coffee served cold. Matcha powder, made in a process where the leaves are steamed, stems are removed and pulled off the vine, and then ground, was shaken with milk for bubble tea. The same technique is used now.

And there you have it: bubble tea. With its growing popularity in Toronto, this drink is worth knowing about. The first Chatime was opened in downtown Toronto in 2011, Coco Fresh (which has over 2000 locations and claims to be the largest bubble tea operation in the world) opened in the fall of 2015, and  Sharetea’s first downtown location just opened in February of 2015. Victoria College student Annie Li is a frequent patron of Chatime on Bloor: she says bubble tea drinking is not just an enjoyable hobby, but a lifestyle. She referenced an old adage: “You can’t buy happiness, but you can buy bubble tea, and it’s basically the same thing.”



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