China has always been know for its obsession with and wide variety of teas. But young people in China don’t often go to traditional tea houses for their daily intake of the beverage, instead they go to (or order delivery from) one of the many milk tea stores. If you haven’t heard of milk tea, maybe you know it by a different name: bubble tea, boba tea, pearl (milk) tea, or tapioca tea, to name a few.
The popular drink started in Taiwan in the 1980s. There are many origin stories but regardless of who started adding milk and tapioca pearls or bubbles to tea, it took off in popularity, spreading all over mainland China in the 1990s and worldwide by the early 2000s.
What exactly is pearl milk tea 珍珠茶 (zhēn zhū chá)? There are many different varieties now, some without either milk or tea. Typically, milk tea is tea with milk and tapioca balls, called pearls, bubbles, or boba. Most milk tea stores let you customize your drink, beyond just large or small tapioca balls, you need to select how hot (or cold) you want your drink plus how much sugar you want, if any. You can even choose to add red beans, jelly squares, bursting fruit gel capsules, among other things.
Another variation of the bubble tea stores is the fruit tea store 水果茶店 (shuǐ guǒ chá diàn). Especially popular in the heat of Chinese summers, fruit tea stores serve a sweet tea blended with fruit juices and filled with pieces of fresh fruit and, of course, pearls or boba. Popular fruit juices are watermelon, lemon, passionfruit, kumquat, peach, and avocado has made it many menus in recent years.
Other popular new trends in bubble tea include different flavors of bubbles, such as brown sugar which is called 脏 or dirty. A popular topping on teas is cheese, often salted cheese. It sounds unusual but the savory rich flavor of cream-like cheese mixed with a sweetened fragrant tea is surprisingly pleasant.
However you take your milk tea, be sure to take a selfie before you start enjoying your drink so you can share the picturesque combination of tea, pearls, milk, and any other additions you order to share on social media!