Bubble milk tee: unique Taiwan refreshment popular around world

Ian Ludwig, The China Post

Anyone who has been to a Taiwan night market knows that this island offers a smorgasbord of street vendor snacks. Stinky tofu, barbecued squid and dried chicken blood-on-a-stick are among the most popular refreshments to grace us with their fragrances from the roadside stands.

The king of Taiwan vendor cuisine, however, can only be the globally-acclaimed Bubble Milk Tea. It claims dominance in both the categories of food and drink, because it is not only a beverage, but also a meal as it contains an abundance of edible, over-sized tapioca balls — which are vigorously slurped up through a straw the width of your thumb. If you are not sure what I am referring to, then perhaps you know the brew by another name. Some call it Boba Drink, others Pearl Iced Tea. I came to know it growing up in Taiwan by its traditional Mandarin name: Zhen Zhu Nai Cha, but for the sake of brevity will refer to it as Bubble tea.


The creation of Bubble tea came about in many stages. Legend has it that tea was discovered in China by Emperor Shen-nung when a drifting tree leaf found its way into his cup of heated water, unbeknownst to him. Milk was allegedly first added to tea in France by Marquise Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, presumably to protect her elegant cups from cracking, as tea will sometimes to do porcelain. Iced tea was first recorded as being served at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, when Richard Blechynden decided the hot weather called for a cool drink.

The idea for the key component was conceived right here in Taiwan in 1983 by a gifted man named Liu Han-chieh. Liu had the ingenious idea of heating tapioca starch with water and caramel to create a thick paste, which he then ran through sieves to mold pellets of different sizes. He combined the pearls, milk, ice and tea to market the first Bubble tea drink in Taichung.

Finding the Perfect Tea

The first step to finding the perfect tea is to go out there and get your feet wet. Try some random stalls and get yourself acquainted with the differences in flavor and texture that can arise. Go on, take a few risks. It’s well worth it in the end. Next you must determine your favorite vendor. I recommend choosing one with a lively name. Near my old high school in Taichung, everyone goes to a stall owned by a woman named Crazy Sue. Now the seller you choose doesn’t have to be called Crazy (Insert Name), but certainly something like Frenzied Bob or Ludicrous Bertha is in order. Finally, find the flavor that you most enjoy. While the Zhen Zhu Nai Cha is a classic, there are other more elaborate possibilities in today’s world. Passion fruit is a common additive, so is coconut. Crazy Sue served up some of the most delicious honey, pudding milk tea.

How To Drink Your Tea

Now that you know how to go about picking your tea, we must discuss the various methods by which Bubble tea can be consumed: The Perfect Balance: You must position your monstrosity of a straw so that the bottom end is directly above where the pearls have collected at the bottom of your drink. When you suck, your mouth will be invaded by the “perfect balance” of tea and bobas, and ideally you will finish your tea and pearls at exactly the same time. The Not-Big-On-Deferred-Grat-ification: A method for those amateur connoisseurs who cannot control themselves and have a certain uninhibited mindset. The straw is toward the bottom of the cup and all the zhen zhus are inhaled before a single drop of tea is consumed. The Wild Gunman: The straw never goes near the pearls until all of the tea is gone. While you hastily suck up your tea, the bobas rest peacefully at the bottom of your cup. Once the liquid is gone, then the fun begins. Fill your mouth with the little pellets, point your straw at whatever object suits your fancy, then unleash the fury. I once knew a guy that broke the sound barrier with a tapioca ball. He also broke somebody’s car. And if the bullet doesn’t destroy on impact, a dried zhen zhu is a more effective paint-stripper than turpentine.

(This article will also be published in the August issue of the Taiwan International Trade magazine.)