Boba, bubble tea, pearl milk tea — whatever you call it, if you go to Berkeley, you’ve probably heard of it. While many may enjoy this creamy drink filled with chewy tapioca pearls, few know the history behind it or the cultural significance it holds for many people who grew up drinking the dessert beverage.
As someone who went to middle school in Taiwan (my mom’s birthplace) for a year and who is a drinker of boba with my Chinese grandparents since way before it was considered hip, I was delighted to learn about the history of my favorite drink. Bubble tea has become an important cultural staple in Taiwan and a way to showcase the small island’s delicious offerings to the rest of the international food scene. It fills me with pride to know that a snack from the tiny island my family calls home is so beloved in my home in California.
I have fond memories of my grandmother taking my younger brother and I to get boba and feeling delighted by the chewy texture of the pearls. Every time I drink boba now, I am reminded of my grandmother and of getting boba with friends during my year in Taiwan. The boba itself is delicious, but the memories are equally sweet.
Invented in Taiwan in the 1980s, the drink/dessert hybrid has risen to fame in the US in the last few years, even becoming an official emoji in 2020. I remember being so excited that I could now text my family using the new emoji! The drink’s most popular name in the US — boba — has a humorous origin. It was the nickname of Hong Kong movie star Amy Yip and loosely translates to “champion of breasts.”
While the title of ‘original creator of bubble tea’ is contested and was even the subject of a 10-year lawsuit, Tu Tsong He and Lin Hsiu Hui, the two creators, both claim they created bubble tea the same way: by deciding to pour fenyuan (white tapioca balls — a traditional Taiwanese snack) into their tea. The white tapioca balls soon evolved into bigger, black tapioca balls cooked in brown sugar and most often accompanied by milk tea for a “richer taste and a chewier texture,” according to CNN Travel.
The rest is history — the newly created bubble tea quickly became one of the most popular drinks in the Taiwanese snack market. From there, it burst onto the international food scene and into the US. Pretty soon, everyone I knew had tried the drink of my childhood! This was exciting to me on a personal level, but I’m also proud that my heritage is being shown in such a positive light, especially given recent anti-Asian sentiments and hate crimes fueled by COVID-19 and politicians. I believe that cultivating awareness of other cultures is a more lighthearted but important way to increase the appreciation of diversity across our country and specifically at Berkeley.
I hope that this slice of boba history helps Berkeley students understand the cultural significance of their favorite snack beverage. With that in mind, don’t forget to enjoy a nice, refreshing cup of boba tea for National Bubble Tea Day on April 30th!