National Bubble Tea Day on April 30 has only been celebrated a short time, but we are bubbling over with enthusiasm just thinking about celebrating the quirky beverage. Bubble tea aficionados cannot get enough of the creamy sweet tea drink garnished with tapioca balls that look like pearly bubbles floating on top. The addition of National Bubble Tea Day to the calendar gives credence to both the drink that originated in Taiwan and its trendy pop culture following.
History of National Bubble Tea Day
Shaken tea and milk drinks were already popular fare in Taiwan’s night markets in the 1980s when teahouses began selling the beverages topped with doughy black and white tapioca ball garnishments resembling bubbles. “Bubble tea,” also known as “boba” or “pearl tea” attracted a cult-like fascination that quickly became part of the Taiwanese youth pop culture and spread rapidly from Taiwan throughout Asia.
Which tea room was first to add tapioca balls, called “pearls” to the foamy tea and milk drinks popular with night market crowds is up for debate, although two tearooms in Taiwan stake claim to bubble tea.
The founder of the Chun Shui Tang tea room in Taichung, Taiwan first began serving cold Chinese tea after seeing the popularity of coffee served cold while traveling Japan in the 1980s. Owner Liu Han-Chieh gives credit to his teahouse product development manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, for inventing bubble tea. While playing with her glass of iced tea during a meeting in 1988, on a whim she dropped some pudding with tapioca balls into her glass of cold tea. The resulting drink was such a hit with other attendees that the drink recipe was added to the tearoom’s menu, much to the delight of customers.
The other claim-to-bubble-tea-fame is made by Tu Tsong, owner of the Hanlin Tea Room in Tainan, Taiwan who says he invented “pearl tea” in 1986. His inspiration came from white tapioca balls that looked like pearls in the Ya Mu Liao day market. He added some of the “pearls” to cold tea, resulting in the first “pearl tea.” When he mixed brown sugar into his tapioca ball recipe the pearl color darkened to black. He began serving his pearl tea with both black and white pearls, which delighted his customers.
Regardless of who created that first delicious sweet milk tea drink with tapioca “pearls” floating playfully atop the foam, some say bubble tea has become Taiwan’s most iconic export of the 21st century. Bubble tea eventually appeared in west coast American university and college campus cafes in the 1990s, arriving with Taiwanese students. The drink was first only available as a menu item in local Asian restaurants. But Asian American youth in those areas quickly identified with “boba” as they preferred to call it, and it became an iconic meme for Asian students seeking cultural familiarity away from home. Boba shops opened in response to the drink’s growing popularity, becoming the Asian American equivalent of American coffee shops as community gathering places.