Bubble tea is a sweetly flavored tea beverage invented in Taiwan. Drink recipes may vary, but most bubble teas contain a tea base mixed with fruit (or fruit syrup) and/or milk. Ice blended versions of the drink are also available, usually in fruit flavors. Bubble teas usually contain small tapioca balls or pearls called "boba". Pearls made of jelly are also available in many places. These teas are shaken to mix the ingredients, creating a foam on the top of some varieties, hence the name.
Bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s, first spread to nearby East Asian countries, migrated to Canada before spreading to Chinatowns throughout the United States, and then to various college towns along the West Coast.
There are many variants of the drink, depending on types of tea used and ingredients added. The most popular kinds are "bubble black tea" (traditional Chinese: 泡沫紅茶; pinyin: pào mò hóng chá; literally "froth red tea"), "bubble green tea" (traditional Chinese: 泡沫綠茶; pinyin: pào mò lǜ chá), and "pearl milk tea" (traditional Chinese: 珍珠奶茶; pinyin: zhen zhu nǎi chá).
A common misconception in its English usage, the name "bubble tea" is often associated with pearl milk tea. However, "bubble tea" simply refers to the shaken or whipped drink base. "Bubble tea with pearls" is a more accurate description of the Taiwanese shaken/stirred/whipped tea containing tapioca pearls. Pearl milk tea (of which "bubble tea with pearls" is a subset), also known as "boba milk tea", can refer to any milk tea commonly used, such as Hong Kong-style milk tea, combined with tapioca.
Bubble teas are generally of two distinct types: fruit-flavored teas, and milk teas. However, some shops offer a hybrid "fruit milk tea." Milk teas may use dairy or non-dairy creamers. Some more healthy varieties are 100% crushed fruit smoothies with pearls and signature ice cream shakes made from local ice cream sources. Many American bubble tea vendors sell "milk smoothies", which is similar to bubble tea but does not actually contain any tea ingredients. Some small cafes offer sweetener substitutes such as honey, agave, stevia, and aspartame upon special request.
The oldest known bubble tea consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls (粉圆), condensed milk, and syrup (糖浆) or honey. According to the contested originator (春水堂) from Taichung, the drink was not popular at first, but after being featured on a Japanese TV-show, the concept started to be adopted and popularized by drink vendors throughout Asia. Many variations were created, the most common of which is to serve the drink cold rather than hot. The tea type is frequently replaced. First was the bubble green tea, which uses jasmine-infused green tea (茉香绿茶) instead of black tea. Big tapioca pearls (波霸/黑珍珠) were adapted and quickly replaced the small pearls. Peach or plum flavoring appeared, then more fruit flavors were added until, in some variations, the tea was removed entirely in favor of real fruit. These fruit versions usually contain colored pearls (and/or "jelly cubes" as in the related drink taho), the color chosen to match whatever fruit juice is used. Flavors may be added in the form of powder, fruit juice, pulp, or syrup to hot black or green tea, which is then shaken in a cocktail shaker or mixed with ice in a blender until chilled. Cooked tapioca pearls and other mix-ins are added at the end.
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