Bubble Tea: A Layered and Sugar-Laced History with Recipe (ASIAN 258)
Updated: Apr 20
As the parties awaited the verdict, temperatures soared outside. Not that this would have surprised anyone. It was late July in Taipei. By noon, the thermometer hit ninety-seven degrees, with fifty-four percent humidity -- a perfect time for a tall serving of energizing boba, or bubble tea.
Picture the boba. Sweet milky tea poured over cubes of ice, with a generous scoop of black tapioca pearls. Maybe you have a preference for the flavoring -- taro, lychee, even matcha? What about the latest craze: brown sugar? And how would you like to enjoy your treat? A wide colorful straw -- well, hold on. This was 2019. Taiwan had banned single-use plastic straws at most venues the month before.
But the fuss wasn’t about the straws. The lawsuit raged over something much more lucrative. Two of Taiwan’s most successful franchises had wrangled already for a dozen years. Both parties had traded legal fire for rights to this invention, each claiming to have invented the iconic drink. It's not hard to imagine what was at stake. Boba sales generated billions of dollars last year.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s become acquainted with the contestants. Meet Mr. Tu, the proprietor of Hanlin Teahouse, located in the southern city of Tainan. He says he came up with the idea in 1986, after a trip to the wet market. While there, he spotted some white-colored tapioca pearls. A flash of insight followed: Why not add the chewy snack to iced milk tea?
Ms. Lin, however, insists she was the one. In 1987, she was then a young lady, working in Pure Water Hall in Taizhong. One day, she experimented with blending milk tea and black-colored tapioca pearls, a favorite sweet in her youth. “Pearl" Milk Tea was born.
The court’s verdict, however, left no one the richer – or, for that matter, the wiser. The judges refused to settle on the competing claims of priority. “Anyone, any shop has the right to make the drink. It’s not subject to patent.” There was thus no point in deciding who came up with boba first.
The court’s decision sounds like a cop out, but my feeling is the judges were right. Bubble tea was a group lift and did not arise from any one moment of inspiration. It took shape over many centuries. The drink has many layers and parents.
Layer 1: Dairy Meets Caffeine
Let’s start with the tea: Where on earth did Taiwanese tea baristas get the idea of adding dairy or sugar to caffeine? Popular wisdom presumes that this was a British invention.
Yet nothing could be farther from the truth. Milk -- or better still, creamy -- teas had a long history in Asia. Central Asian Turks have long enjoyed it. My friend Gene Anderson and his collaborator, Paul Buell, suspect they passed on their love of the drink to the Mongols. The Tibetans swore and still swear by it. And yes, so did the Chinese. Once upon a time they craved it, as they do now.
The earliest definitive reference to creamy tea dates to thirteenth-century China. It does not appear in a cookbook, but rather in a poem. A rather wild man named Lu You 陸游 (1125–1209) wrote some verse about his daily routine. He was then living in Southern China, in Shaoxing. When he wasn’t drunk, pining for his cousin, or raging against the Song dynasty’s nomadic enemies or the pacifists at court, or writing gory poetry, he was doing a lot of eating and drinking. Apparently, he also took his tea with churned butter.
Lu You, of course, was an early adopter, but he was not alone. Later cookbooks in Chinese disclose a world of creamy and milky teas. Strong black brews, whisked with butter until fluffy. There was also straight milk and fermented tea, served initially with salt, then sugar. Then something called leicha 擂茶, or pestle tea, came into fashion.
The pestle tea is worth lingering over. I admit that when I first read the recipe, I imagined it would be disgusting. Then I made a Ming-dynasty Chinese rendition and understood the power of beating the fats:
Brew a strong brick of tea. Think of something really dense -- pu er, for example. Then blend in liberal amounts of butter or cream, mixed in turn with sesame paste. Let it foam. You have a choice of savory or sweet flavoring. If you are an American, I recommend a liberal hand with the sugar.
These milky drinks made a splash in the seventeenth century. The first European traders, who turned up in Fujian and Guangdong, could not get over them. They had drunken matcha in Japan and grasped its commercial value -- as medicine. But the fermented tea and sweet dairy combination was a game changer. Within a century of this revelation, tea became a staple at the English table.
Not surprisingly, the French, Dutch, and ultimately the British adopted this way of consuming tea. Over Christmas, I found a Frenchman who even said that Europeans ripped off the formula from China. Who would think? English tea ain’t even English, or French. It’s Chinese -- well not really. Probably Turkic, but with cavity-inducing flourishes from the Middle Kingdom.
Layer 2: Tea Meets Thick (Processed) Dairy
But how did these creamy drinks make their way to Taiwan? As some of you may know, the original boba combined powdered creamer with tea. This lends the drink a richer flavor. Nowadays, shops advertise their use of fresh milk and some places use condensed milk. Think Hong Kong-styled bubble tea.
Here, the historical record is patchy -- at least for the time being. This much can be said, however.
Pestle tea came over with some of the immigrants from Southern Fujian. In the eighteenth century, they began settling the island in large numbers. Today, some versions of pestle tea use soy milk, one of the world’s earliest dairy substitutes. At least one rendition, from the 90s, employed cow’s milk.
In the old days, I suspect the dairy in pestle tea would have been buffalo milk butter. That's the same buffalo milk used in coastal China to produce brined cheeses. Yes, there were -- and still are -- cheeses in Southern Chinese cities like Zhangzhou. Apparently, some of the immigrants took the techniques with them when they crossed the straits.
But this was probably not the sole inspiration for milk tea. Official reports from the late nineteenth century indicate that the island’s wealthy liked to drink their tea with condensed milk (most likely sweet). Was this a holdover from earlier times? Evidence of European influence, or what food historians call a “return trip”? I don’t know yet. That’s a question for another research trip!
The picture gets muddier from the turn of the twentieth century. As you know, colonialism has a way of adding culinary layers to a place. Following the Sino-Japanese War of 1895, Taiwan became a colony of the Japanese empire. (Remember my story about instant ramen?). This is why you can buy sushi at Taiwanese night markets, or local versions of oden and tempura.
In those days, the Japanese pushed far more than meat on their citizens; they also sought to get their population hooked on milk. Grow tall and strong, and go forth to dominate! Towards this end, the Japanese colonial authorities established a milk industry throughout the empire, including Taiwan, importing modern dairy breeds from the West. The fresh stuff was pricey and geared mostly for Japanese (military) consumption.
Now, my own interpretation. The watery milk -- a hallmark of the modern dairy industry - suited the Taiwanese palate even less than the wallet. Taiwanese ideas about milk borrowed from a long tradition of Chinese medicine. In that tradition, doctors classified milk as sweet and rich. It was good for fattening up a kid and making an older person stronger.
If we step back for a second, this fits buffalo milk to a T. Chen Yu-jen tells us that while the Japanese used Western dairy breeds, Taiwanese dairy farmers worked mostly with water buffaloes and Chinese yellow cattle. Economics probably played a role in this decision. But I suspect culinary preference were also important. A properly-fed buffalo may not be a prolific lactator, but she squirts out nice milkshakes, at a whopping 8-12 percent fat. The same applied to the native Chinese cattle breed. Her milk averaged between 5 and 8 percent. Puts a new spin on whole milk or 3 percent, eh?
For people who could not buy -- let alone refrigerate -- fresh milk, sweet condensed milk was a good option. Better, in fact, than milk powder. The dense stuff was expensive, but a lot cheaper than fresh milk. Plus, it really was the closest thing to buffalo milk or the native varieties of cattle, and you could do a lot with it. You could send it as a gift for sick people.
Say you were suffering from a bad case of food aversion or dysentery, a can of the stuff would help. At least theoretically. Yes, that was definitely a thing in early twentieth-century Taiwan. This treatment plan goes back to China, about a thousand years. By the way, that’s one reason why I suspect popular understandings of lactose intolerance are crap (pun intended).
On a more appetizing note, condensed milk went easily into desserts. For example, it paired well with shaved ice. Mash taro root and marry it to condensed milk, and you have a hit.
The Taiwanese love of condensed dairy made the Japanese scratch their heads. The latter preferred the watery fresh milk Europeans drank by the pint. But Taiwan, I suspect, had a different cultural matrix and preference for richer dairy. Hence, the creamer.
Layer 3: Cream Tea Meets Tapioca
All this leaves the bubbles. For many people, the bubbles are the main star. You can skip the cow dairy or even the caffeine. But the bubbles are non-negotiable.
The bubbles, of course, are none other than tapioca or cassava pearls. (Please remember the Columbian Exchange!) Tapioca came to Taiwan well before the twentieth century. Early reports reveal that it was a poor man’s food. Farmers planted cassava on thin rocky soil on hills, or places where rice refused to grow.
The Taiwanese soon devised a host of culinary applications for the root. Some of them made their new year’s dumpling soup with tapioca starch rather than sticky rice. Others added it to their rice noodles.
In the first half of the twentieth century, Taiwanese also started incorporating their tapioca pearls into sweets. Think of tapioca shaved ice -- with sweet condensed milk, plus red bean and the like. Picture taro or yam tapioca balls. You get my drift: Tapioca was and remains big. It lends sweet and savory foods a nice, squishy but bouncy bite. That’s the Q factor.
At the end of the day, I think it was inevitable that milk tea met the pearls. After all, Taiwanese were used to taking both their tea and tapioca with dairy. Rich, sweet dairy.
What is more, their cultural matrix did not insist upon rigid distinctions about what makes something either a drink or a food. Thank goodness: caffeine has never been the same.
Brown Sugar Bubble Tea à la Brownie
Recently, there have been reports about food adulteration in the bubble tea industry. Much of the anxiety has focused on the tapioca pearls: the preservatives, food coloring, and undeclared substances (!). Rather than waste your money, I suggest you make your own pearls.
For the tapioca pearls:
Tapioca starch, 6 T
Boiling water, 2 T
For the brown sugar glaze:
Brown sugar, ¾ cup
Water, 1 ½ cup
Black-strap molasses, 2 T
For the milk tea:
Black tea, 4 bags
Whole milk, 1 cup
Half and half, 1/4 cup
Note: you can also substitute one 14 oz-can of whole evaporated milk for the fresh dairy
Measure out the tapioca starch and put it into a heat-proof mixing boil. Pour 2 T of the boiling water into the starch while stirring to incorporate evenly.
Once cool enough to handle, knead the dough with your hands. If necessary add a little extra starch.
3. Shape the dough into a ball and cut into halves. Roll the halves into thin logs. Cover the portions you are not currently using with plastic wrap.
4. Cut the log into small pebbles and roll them into balls. You can make these as big as you would like -- or as small. I prefer to keep them medium large, to reduce work.
5. Boil a small pot of water. Once the water boils, add tapioca pearls and cook for 15 minutes.
6. After 15 minutes, immerse pearls in an ice bath or a bowl of cold water. Stir to prevent clumping. As the pearls cool, they become translucent.
7. Prepare the tea by steeping the tea bags in boiling water for 10 minutes. You will want no more than 8-10 oz of liquid for the whole beverage.
8. Start another pot of water, adding brown sugar. Once the water reaches a boil, stir in the molasses (molasses are a good source not only of coloring, but also rich flavor and minerals like iron).
9. Add the cooled tapioca pearls to the pot and let them simmer for 10 minutes until the liquid has turned into a dark syrup. This will be your brown sugar base.
10. Combine your tea with dairy.
11. Add the tapioca pearls to the tall glasses. Toss in a few ice cubes, then pour in half your dairy tea to each of the glasses.
Buell, Paul D. and Eugene N. Anderson, A Soup for the Qan: Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era As Seen in Hu Sihui's Yinshan Zhengyao (Sir Henry Wellcome Asian), Revised, Expanded Edition (Brill, 2010).
Chen Yuzhen 陳玉箴 [Chen Yu-jen], "Yinyang lunshu yu zhimin tongzhi: Rizhi shiqi Taiwan de rupin shengchan yu xiaofei 營養論述與殖民統治：日治時期臺灣的乳品生產與消費." Taiwan shida lishi xuebao 臺灣師大歷史學報 54 (Dec 2015), 95-148.
Crook, Steven and Katy Hui-wen Hung, A Culinary History of Taipei: Beyond Pork and Ponlai (Rowan and Littlefield, 2018).