A look into the bubble tea phenomenon  | MatieMedia (2023)

There is a new taste in town. It can be fruity or milky. You drink it and you chew it. Dominique Fuchs goes behind the scenes of bubble tea – a tea-based drink served with chewy tapioca pearls that originated in Taiwan.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (1)

“Bubble tea is tea based and tapioca pearls are very chewy balls. Some people like it and some people don’t. If people don’t like the tapioca pearls, I suggest they try the bursting bubbles that have juice inside. Kids love it, because it is fun,” says Tahullah Chen, business partner of Booba Beautea. PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

Bubble tea has become a world trend, says Yixin Zhou, the owner of Royal Tea, a bubble tea shop chain with three stores in Cape Town.

“I came to South Africa six years ago. As a Chinese person who grew up with bubble tea shops in every street, it was hard to see that there were no authentic bubble tea shops in Cape Town,” Zhou says.

Within a year, Zhou opened the first Royal Tea shop.

Three years ago, Zhou’s business consultant suggested opening up a wholesale side of the business supplying bubble tea ingredients to local bubble tea shops. “I rejected the proposal because there were almost no local bubble tea shops.”

But then things changed.

“After Covid, suddenly I got people inquiring about bubble tea ingredients.” Zhou started with one client and now has 25 clients across the country.

Next year, Royal Tea is planning on setting up a warehouse In Johannesburg, as 80% of their clients are from Johannesburg. “Once we are settled, we will establish a training school to train local entrepreneurs how to set up their own bubble tea business,” says Zhou. She is expecting bubble tea to continue to grow in popularity.

Bubble tea becoming a “world trend”

(Video) How bubble tea was invented and became a global phenomenon

Bubble tea has become increasingly popular in Cape Town and the rest of South Africa. This is according to Ute Hermanus, radio presenter at KFM and a passionate foodie.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (2)

Ute Hermanus, radio presenter at KFM and a passionate foodie, says that her mission for the year was to try all of Susu’s bubble tea flavours – there are about 50. Susu by Momo is a bubble tea shop located in De Waterkant, Cape Town. Her favourite flavours are the chocolate caramel, dirty matcha and the passion fruit. PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

The story behind the success of bubble tea can be attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic, reckons Hermanus.

“During lockdown a lot of K-dramas and Chinese dramas became more popular.”

She explains that people became fascinated with how these cultures work. “I think through watching these dramas and becoming immersed in them, people picked up on these cuisines.”

Bubble tea was “a thing” prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but it became more popular in South Africa during the pandemic, Hermanus says.

“If you go to the Neighbourgoods Market in Woodstock, the longest lines tend to be the ones that sell Asian food, like Korean fried chicken and bubble tea,” she says.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (3)

Susu by Momo is one of Ute Hermanus’ favourite bubble tea shops and is located in De Waterkant, Cape Town. Hermanus is a presenter at KFM and passionate foodie. “If I want something that is sweet, and I want to nibble on something, but I don’t necessarily want to eat something. When I want an experience, a sweet yummy experience, then I’ll go and get bubble tea,” Hermanus says. PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

More than just bubbles and tea

Most people think bubble tea is called bubble tea because of the tapioca pearls at the bottom, Hermanus says. “But is it called bubble tea, because when you shake it, there are bubbles on the top.”

(Video) We Finally Know The Truth About Bubble Tea

Kevin Wu, owner of TeAwesome Tea, located in Canal Walk Shopping Centre, explains that bubble tea consists of either iced tea or milk tea. The various teas like black, green, rooibos and oolong tea are the tea base, and are then blended with juice or milk. Customers can choose to add tapioca pearls, bursting bubbles, jellies and custards, he says.

“What makes bubble tea unique is the experience. Human’s mind doesn’t naturally like the ordinary, it needs to be stimulated,” Zhou says.

Zhou explains that Royal Tea is trying to make drinks that have different layers and ingredients in them. “So when you take a sip, you first get the pearls at the bottom, then a delicious sip of tea. Your mind is constantly being entertained and stimulated.”

A lot of hard work goes into making bubble tea, according to Tahullah Chen, business partner of Booba Beautea in Stellenbosch. This is the only bubble tea business in Stellenbosch and opened in 2021.

“To run a bubble tea business… the cost is quite high,” says Chen.

The tapioca pearls, tea, cream cheese and toppings need to be made fresh every day, explains Juka Gerstner, business partner of Booba Beautea.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (4)

Tahullah Chen, business partner of Booba Beautea, grew up with bubble tea in China, but moved to South Africa a few years ago. “I am a foreigner and everything in this country is new to me. There are lots of challenges. Every time after I studied in South Africa, I just thought about how nice it would be to have bubble tea.” PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

Every ingredient needs careful attention and has to be prepared right, says Chen.

“The tapioca pearls are quite a difficult ingredient and every two hours we need to cook fresh pearls.” The pearls are also made by hand and the process is quite laborious, according to Chen.

Fresh tea is made every few hours and it needs to be made in a very specific way, says Chen. “The water and amount of tea needs to be measured precisely, otherwise the tea will taste bitter.”

(Video) Assignment Asia: The Origins of Bubble Tea

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (5)

Booba Beautea in Stellenbosch uses a mixture of imported and local ingredients, says Tahullah Chen, one of the business partners. The berries, other fruit and fresh milk they use in their bubble tea are fresh and sourced from local Stellenbosch farms. They import the tea and tapioca flour from Taiwan and the matcha from Japan. They don’t skimp on their ingredients and they look for the original ingredients, explains Chen. PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

Increasing populari-tea

Chen and Gerstner didn’t know if people in Stellenbosch would like bubble tea, so they started to sell it at the Oude Libertas Slow Market in late 2021.

They soon realised that local people took a liking to bubble tea. Booba Beautea was subsequently opened.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (6)

“If you want to try very traditional and nice bubble tea, always try the basic one like the classic or signature brown sugar. Then you will know the level of the bubble tea shop,” says Tahullah Chen, business partner of Booba Beautea. PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

During Gerstner’s studies in Malaysia, he noticed that students prefer to have a chat in a bubble tea café rather than having a chat in a bar. Therefore, he and Chen decided to try the concept in Stellenbosch.

“I don’t want to directly copy and paste the business to South Africa. It is very important to localise the business,” Chen says.

She explains the importance of educating the customers and explaining to them what bubble tea is. “When I design the menu, I also list all the ingredients, so that the customers know what they are drinking,” Chen says.

When Booba Beautea’s doors first opened, Chen and Gerstner worked till 12 o’clock in the evening to taste test the bubble teas. It took a lot of work and adjusting to localise the bubble tea, according to Chen.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (7)

Booba Beautea is the first bubble tea shop in Stellenbosch. Ute Hermanus describes bubble tea as “a refreshing drink with an experience. I think bubble tea is one of the coolest things ever and I’m obsessed with it. I think it is delicious.” PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

(Video) Tea enjoys an economic bubble

“Locals like more sugar. So, customers have the option to choose between sugar free, half sugar or full sugar,” says Chen. In China there is not an option and the sugar levels are low, she adds.

According to Zhou, bubble tea in China nowadays is very different from the rest of the world. “When I was little, bubble tea was a cheap drink with just flavoured powder and syrups.”

Zhou explains that over time people are more cautious about the health issues that traditional bubble tea could bring, therefore a new style of bubble tea started to emerge. She mentions that bubble tea is usually high in sugar and contains artificial ingredients.

One of the leading bubble tea shops in China is called HEYTEA, says Zhou. The owner started the business with an idea to replace the powder and syrups with real milk and real fruits, according to Zhou. This revolutionary method of making bubble tea has attracted big investors such as Tencent.

A look into the bubble tea phenomenon | MatieMedia (8)

While studying towards a Postgraduate Diploma in Business Management at the Stellenbosch Business School, Tahullah Chen opened Booba Beautea in Stellenbosch with her business partner, Juka Gerstner. Chen said she opened the store because she constantly craves bubble tea. “Every day I want to drink the signature brown sugar bubble tea,” she says. PHOTO: Dominique Fuchs

Something different is brewing

“Bubble tea is very fun to try. It’s refreshing. It’s filling. It’s better than a smoothie and there are so many flavours too,” says Hermanus. It allows you to experience different cultures and it is an educational experience, she adds.

Bubble tea is unique right now, says Hermanus. “It’s not like going for coffee with friends or drinks at a bar,” she says.

Hermanus thinks the novelty factor is driving its continued popularity. “It is something different – it’s not like a standard smoothie.”

(Video) What Does Bubble Tea Do To Your Body? The 30-Day Drinking Test



What does bubble tea stand for? ›

The tea became known as boba because the term is slang for breasts in Chinese (a reference the spherical shape of the tapioca balls).

Where did the term bubble tea come from? ›

After the tea and flavor were shaken well, it topped tapioca pearls that were sitting on the bottom of a clear cup. The tapioca pearls also looked like bubbles, thus also became to known as "Bubble Tea." Bubbles floated on the top your drink and bottom of your drink.

What's so special about bubble tea? ›

It's Extremely Tasty & Unique

The sweet taste of the tea paired with the delicious toppings make up the unique taste that bubble tea provides. Drinks like iced coffee or juice have the same texture but with bubble tea, the pearls offer a sort of “break” from the same boring consistency.

What does boba mean in Chinese? ›

Etymology. borrowed from Chinese (Beijing) bōbà, name for the large tapioca balls found in the tea, perhaps literally, "large breasts, large-breasted woman"

What's the difference between Boba tea and bubble tea? ›

The term boba typically refers to the tapioca Pearls in your bubble tea. For example, people can say, “what's your Boba texture like? Or “do you love boba pearls?” Overall, there's no difference or distinction between boba and bubble tea, or are there any decisions between them.

Is bubble tea the same as boba? ›

Bubble tea, a popular beverage that originated in Taiwan, is known by many names. Bubble tea can be called 'pearl milk tea,' 'boba tea,' 'tapioca tea,' or simply 'boba. ' The name most popularly used for this drink will vary in different regions.

Do Asians call it bubble tea or boba? ›

In the USA, on the west coast, and especially in LA, everyone calls it Boba. On the East coast, many people refer to it as Bubble Tea. In Taiwan, they also call it Bubble Tea in English and波霸奶茶(bōbà nǎichá) or 珍珠奶茶(zhēnzhū nǎichá) in Chinese. So it is really up to personal preference and depends a lot on your region.

What is boba called in America? ›

Boba tea, bubble tea, and pearl milk tea — in Taiwan, zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶) — are essentially different names for the same thing; the monikers differ by location, but also personal preference. (In the U.S., the East Coast favors bubble tea, while the West prefers boba.)

What is the original bubble tea flavor called? ›

The most traditional bubble tea is simply Assam tea shaken over ice with either milk or a non-dairy creamer, and sweetened to taste. This is still one of the most popular 'flavours' for the boba tea version with tapioca pearls.

How unhealthy is a bubble tea? ›

Unfortunately, boba itself provides very few health benefits, though its calories and carbohydrates can provide you with a boost in energy. In most cases, boba tea contains high levels of sugar, which is linked to long-term health conditions like diabetes and obesity.

Is boba healthier than Coke? ›

That cup of fresh fruit juice could contain as much sugar as a soft drink. For instance, a 500ml cup of brown sugar boba milk can contain about 92g of sugar, about three times more than the amount of sugar in a 320ml can of Coca-Cola.

Is bubble tea healthier than coffee? ›

Sure, it has caffeine (sometimes), but the sugar content and empty calories make it a poor replacement for coffee or plain old tea. Bottom line: Feel free to enjoy boba tea in moderation, but definitely keep in mind that it does not meet the health criteria for a healthy, daily pick-me-up.

What does dirty mean in boba? ›

It was essentially “black sugar milk tea with boba.” The soul of the “dirty tea” was the amber pattern that black sugar left on the cup wall. The boba in the drink is first dipped into the thick fried black sugar made on-site, and then milk is poured directly into the cup.

Is boba Korean or Japanese? ›

Despite the huge popularity of boba tea in Japan, this tasty treat actually originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. The drink is known locally in Taiwan as zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶). There are two different categories of boba tea; teas with milk and teas without milk.

What is boba called in England? ›

Boba vs bubble tea worldwide

Other countries like Canada, Australia, the UK, and South Africa all prefer bubble tea when referring to the delicious tapioca enhanced drink.

Is boba just tapioca pearls? ›

Tapioca pearls, also known as tapioca balls, are edible translucent spheres produced from tapioca, a starch made from the cassava root. They originated as a cheaper alternative to sago in Southeast Asian cuisine. When used as an ingredient in bubble tea, they are most commonly referred to as pearls or boba.

Is boba tea just tapioca? ›

Boba, in the generalized sense, is tapioca pearls. Also called bubbles or pearls, black boba is found in mostly milk-based bubble tea. One of the "standard boba pearls," black boba, is made from the cassava root. The black coloring is created by added brown sugar or caramel coloring.

Does Starbucks have boba drinks? ›

Starbucks does not have boba because they are a coffee shop, not a tea house (even though they have partnered with Teavana). Starbucks is mainly known for its specialty coffees, their popular iced coffee drinks, and other beverages such as iced teas, so having tapioca pearls on the Starbucks menu would be out of place.

What is boba without boba called? ›

In most shops, many patrons are also free to choose what toppings they want to add to their drink. So, customers do not necessarily need to add tapioca pearls to their drink for it to be called bubble tea vs boba! For example, popular toppings include crystal jelly, fresh fruits, grass jelly and more.

What language is boba? ›

From English boba, from the pinyin romanization of the Mandarin pronunciation of Chinese 波霸 (bōbà), from Cantonese 波霸 (bo1 baa3, “large breasts, tapioca pearls”), from 波 (bo1) transcribing English ball and 霸 (baa3, “chief, top”).

What is Starbucks boba? ›

Starbucks Boba tastes like Starbucks coffee but with added pearls. Our Starbucks boba is sweet, cold milk coffee with the exciting pop of coffee popping pearls. The texture of these pearls is somewhat reminiscent of tapioca pearls or boba.

Is boba Halal or Haram? ›

The majority of bubble tea products are halal. The main concern with bubble tea is generally the Tapioca balls or pearls, or the popping bobas which resemble other Gelatin products, such as sweets and jelly. These balls are actually made from agar or alginate (a seaweed extract) which are both Halal.

Who invented popping boba? ›

In one narrative, bubble tea is traced back to the 1980s in Taichung, Taiwan, when Ms. Lin Hsiu Hui took the tapioca off of her Taiwanese dessert and added it to her iced tea.

What age group drinks the most boba? ›

Bubble Tea trend is sweeping Singapore with the largest consumer base in the age group of 13-24 years. Interestingly, Single Female consumers are the biggest proponents of bubble tea as compared to males. Consumers are enjoying the novelty of customisation, its indulgence factor, and convenience.

What is boba called in Japan? ›

Bubble tea is usually referred to as tapioca drink or just tapioca in Japan. Whereas fans in the Western world typically call it boba tea or bubble tea. It first grew popular in Japan in the early 90s when it was made with coconut milk and white tapioca balls.

What is the most famous flavor of boba? ›

Black Milk Tea or Hong Kong Milk Tea

Without a doubt, this is the most popular boba tea flavor. Being the all time classic and one of the first flavors of bubble tea, it's safe to assume that it's super easy to create this drink for yourself at home too.

What is the blue boba called? ›

Butterfly pea flowers are sometimes just referred to as 'blue tea' depending upon the brand and where you purchase it. The tea has a subtle flavor that is similar to green tea, but is caffeine free. Kids and adults will enjoy this blue bubble milk tea, since it's pretty and tastes great.

Is bubble tea worse than coke? ›

Brown sugar milk tea with boba has been found as the unhealthiest option with 18.5 teaspoons of sugar. For an easy reference, a can of regular coke contains 7 teaspoons of sugar; a cup of brown sugar milk tea with pearl is equivalent to 2.6 cans of coke.

Is boba OK for a day? ›

A Quick Review

But there are a few reasons to enjoy this sweetened beverage in moderation. Drinking too much of it may increase your chances of developing diet-related diseases and leave you constipated. "One to two cups a day should be fine, but you shouldn't consume anything in excess," advised Dr. Kushnir.

What is the unhealthiest bubble tea? ›

The hospital compared the sugar level in seven types of bubble tea orders, and found that the unhealthiest option by far was brown sugar milk tea with pearls. This drink contained 18.5 teaspoons of sugar. The second most unhealthy option was winter melon tea, at 16 teaspoons of sugar.

What is healthier Starbucks or boba? ›

(grande) you'll find that the standard frap contains 420 calories with 66 grams of sugar, while the tea is just 212 calories with 42 grams of sugar, plus another 200-250 calories with boba added.

Why is boba so addictive? ›

But if you love drinking bubble tea, you are actually addicted to its sugar. Did you know? Sugar is as addictive as cocaine! However, it is widely used as a 'legal drug' worldwide, as it causes addiction in the brain.

Do you eat the bubbles in bubble tea? ›

Tapioca is the bubbles in bubble tea. You eat it and drink it at the same time. The tea can be green tea, oolong tea, black tea or milk tea, which is tea cut with condensed milk and sugar—a diabetic nightmare.

Is boba a real fruit? ›

As stated earlier, the tapioca pearls that are also called “boba” are generally made from cassava starch, a root vegetable from South America that is also referred to as yuca.

Can 8 year olds drink boba? ›

The short answer is yes. Bubble tea is safe for consumption if enjoyed in moderation, so an occasional cup is fine for kids and teens.

Is boba supposed to be chewy or hard? ›

Tapioca Boba (aka pearls/bubbles) is a traditional drink addition that is chewy and can be sweetened with sugar and honey. As it is made from tapioca, it has very little flavor when eaten by itself without sweetener. The sweetness and chewy texture may also vary depending on each store and how they cook it.

What does boba mean in German? ›

Pearl Tea [m]

What are the black beads called in boba? ›

Tapioca pearls (boba) are small chewy balls made from tapioca starch. Typically, these spheres are black in colour and are used for bubble tea.

What kind of milk is in boba tea? ›

Every cup of boba milk tea had this signature condensed milk flavor that fused perfectly with the concentrated black tea. A lot of stands also use whole milk, so if you're not a fan of condensed milk, whole milk will also give you an authentic taste of Taiwanese Boba Milk Tea!

Which country invented boba? ›

Invented in the 1980s, bubble tea (also called "black pearl tea" or "boba tea") is a beloved Taiwan classic. Though there are dozens of different variations, at its core it's a combination of tea, milk and the 'bubbles' -- which are essentially little balls made of anything from tapioca to fruit jelly.

Are tapioca balls vegan? ›

The boba in bubble tea is often vegan, as tapioca pearls are completely plant-based, and popping pearls are usually made of nothing more than water, sugar, fruit juice and Alginic acid (found in algae), again, making it plant-based.

What is the point of pearls in bubble tea? ›

The cooked pearls on their own are chewy but relatively flavorless. They become much sweeter after being soaked in simple syrup. But the real flavor comes from the drink itself — the pearls are more there for texture. Bubble tea doesn't always have the tapioca bubbles, however.

Are tapioca pearls healthy? ›

The minerals in tapioca can provide important health benefits. For example, calcium is important for keeping your bones strong and preventing the development of osteoporosis. Tapioca also contains iron, an essential mineral we need to help transport oxygen throughout the body. Tapioca contains no saturated fat.

Is bubble tea Korean or Japanese? ›

Despite the huge popularity of boba tea in Japan, this tasty treat actually originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. The drink is known locally in Taiwan as zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶). There are two different categories of boba tea; teas with milk and teas without milk.

Do you eat the balls in bubble tea? ›

"I always told anyone trying bubble tea for the first time; you have to chew the bubbles," said Mary. "That's part of the reason why you get bubble tea." She says that she tells her child to chew their food regularly, so eating "bubbles" is no different, so people shouldn't be afraid of trying the famous drink.

Is bubble tea Chinese Japanese or Korean? ›

The origins of bubble tea

One particular teahouse in Taiwan, Chun Shui Tang, is generally accepted as being the birthplace of bubble tea. The founder, Liu Han-Chieh, began serving cold Chinese tea in his shop in the early 1980s.

What does bubble mean in boba? ›

But remember, bubble tea actually means the “bubbles” (or 泡泡) that are formed from shaking tea. In places of the country with more Taiwanese or Chinese immigrants, it is usually called Boba Tea. This is because the Chinese word for tapioca pearls is bōbà 波霸.

Does Starbucks have boba tea? ›

Starbucks does not have boba because they are a coffee shop, not a tea house (even though they have partnered with Teavana). Starbucks is mainly known for its specialty coffees, their popular iced coffee drinks, and other beverages such as iced teas, so having tapioca pearls on the Starbucks menu would be out of place.

What is bubble tea called in America? ›

Boba tea, bubble tea, and pearl milk tea — in Taiwan, zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶) — are essentially different names for the same thing; the monikers differ by location, but also personal preference. (In the U.S., the East Coast favors bubble tea, while the West prefers boba.)

Does boba digest in your stomach? ›

Bubble tea balls are easily digestible for most people

Since tapioca comes from the starch-based cassava root, it's mainly filled with carbohydrates, according to Healthline. Starches like cassava function similarly to fiber in the body, and healthy people can digest them with no problems, Dr. de Latour said.

What happens if you swallow boba without chewing? ›

First of all, if you fail to chew your food properly in general, your digestive system will not be able to break this down, possibly leading to bloating, stomachaches and ultimately slowing down the overall digestive process. Also, not being funny, you could end up possibly choking on these balls.

What country is bubble tea most popular? ›

They all contributed to the rise of bubble tea, the insanely popular Taiwanese drink that's taken the world by storm in recent years. Invented in the 1980s, bubble tea (also called "black pearl tea" or "boba tea") is a beloved Taiwan classic.

Is popping boba real boba? ›

Popping boba is popular topping for frozen yogurt. It is also often served in fruity bubble tea. Traditional boba is tapioca based, but popping boba is made from juice. The little juice spheres have an outer gel layer that is created in a process called spherification.

Why are boba pearls black? ›

One of the "standard boba pearls," black boba, is made from the cassava root. The black coloring is created by added brown sugar or caramel coloring. In other words, black boba is simply tapioca with added coloring that makes it sweeter.


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