Boba Tea aka a High Ranking Love of My Life

July 30, 2012

Us Taiwanese have our challenges.  We cannot fly our own flag at the Olympics. We cannot grow very tall.  We cannot let go of our obsession over Hello Kitty. But we lay claim to introducing the world to the ingenious beverage that is Boba Tea.

Let’s first talk origins.  Now I have personally read heartrending origin stories of boba tea in several tea stands all over Taiwan.  I have a healthy amount of skepticism, not unlike the doubt I cast over the old farmer who sits giving autographs by the Terracotta soldiers claiming to be the first to strike this amazing discovery (come ON, the dude never ages!), towards anyone who claims to have invented BT. There are two probable tea shops, one located in Tainan, the other in Taichung with a higher degree of legitimacy, but the verdict is inconclusive.  Suffice it to say, someone at some point, in Taiwan, decided to put tapioca balls in milk tea, increase the diameter of a regular sized straw, and start a world-trending sensation in the cold tea industry.  
Next let’s try to nail down proper terminology.  In the beginning, the drink was given the lovely name of Zhen Zhu Nai Cha, the “Pearl Milk Tea”, invoking the beautiful Chinese tradition of embellishing the names of our dishes, transforming plain old tapioca balls into a treasured jewel.  Later on, as the pearls evolved (got bigger), someone crassly named it Boba tea.  Boba is a Taiwanese colloquial term for large breasts.  It’s kind of a bummer, really.  Luckily, some English speakers have taken to calling it “Bubble Tea”, which is both a sound play of Boba Tea as well as descriptive of the round objects suspended in the drinks.  For the purpose of this blog, I’m going to shorten it to BT.
For those who may have never tried BT, let me just break it down to you exactly what it is.  Bobas are tapioca balls.  Its primary ingredients are starch, water, and sugar, mixed together and shaped into small balls of varying diameters.  Originally, people ate them just by itself in sugared water as a dessert.  At that time, they were usually made to be clear in color.  Eventually people started liking the taste of brown sugar in them so the dark colored tapiocas came to be popular.  Taiwanese people are very particular about the texture of our food. A common description for bobas are “tan-ya”, which literally means bounces-off-teeth.  For some odd reason we like to work to consume our food.  Chicken off bones, crab meat from the crevices of the claws, nuts encased in hard shells, the process is half the fun.  Consistent with this ethic, we feel simply gulping down liquid is hardly belaboring, let’s work the jaw muscles as we drink. Boba tea is made by filling about 1/4 of a cup with tapioca balls, then filled to the brim with milk tea. It is consumed by straws large enough so you can enjoy a perfect proportion of both liquid and solids with each and every sip.
Adding boba to tea is like accessorizing.  It may not have cost you very much to add that colorful scarf or shiny belt to your cute little black dress, but it sure transforms the entire outfit.  Who would’ve thought something as plain and ordinary as starch and sugar could make a pauper of a drink into a prince? 
BT is more than my comfort drink, it is my Savior drink. I have had the darkest days of my life brightened by the presence of BT. My husband knows instinctively how to smooth over a fight. No flowers or chocolate for me, a cheap drink off the tea stand taps into the most romantic part of my soul. Stress melts when I anticipate that first cold rush of bubbles shooting up into the roof of my mouth, and the ensuing slow rhythmic chewing as the caffeine adds a kick to my system.  It’s a perfect balance of white and dark, fluid and substance, yin and yang.  
You should try it.  I like it a lot, can you tell?