Since the ’90s, Americans have developed a taste for boba, aka bubble tea — a variety of drinks, often-but-not-always-tea-based, filled with black tapioca pearls that originated in Taiwan and are now enjoyed the world over. First, Taiwanese-Americans and other members of the Asian diaspora filled boba shops in Asian communities, turning an affinity for boba into a marker of identity, for better or worse. Then, its popularity spread, hitting basically every touchstone on the journey of a food trend — non-Asian people flocking to Asian-owned businesses to try it, and then acting like they “discovered” it, boba shops opening in every town, and even a pandemic-related supply shortage. And now, the final step: National chains are putting it on the menu while also trying to pretend it’s something new.
Last year, Del Taco introduced a drink with “popping pearls,” noting that to that point, “popping pearls ... had not appeared on the menu of any major quick-service restaurant” (in the United States, anyway). Today (June 23), Dunkin’ is introducing “Popping Bubbles” drinks to its menus, after testing them in Massachusetts last year. The strawberry-flavored bubbles can be added to any iced or frozen drink, and will be paired with the wide straw typically used in boba drinks to suck up the boba pearls. And late last month, Sonic introduced Green Apple flavored “Bursting Bubbles,” part of a summertime special that will run until August 1. They can be added to any cold drink as well, but are also featured in the chain’s Blue Burst Slush and Cherry Burst Slush. Both Dunkin’ and Sonic are owned by Inspire Brands, which also owns, among others, Baskin Robbins, Arby’s, and Buffalo Wild Wings.
The upcoming introduction by Dunkin’ and Sonic, both of which have built their brands on drinks, catapults the bubbles into the mainstream. It’s notable that, despite the very obvious provenance, neither chain (unlike Del Taco) is calling these drink additions “boba.” In a statement to Eater, Sonic said the bubbles are “purposefully uniquely different from traditional boba or tapioca pearls. They are orbs of sweet, flavored syrup encased in a thin candy exterior that yield and pop with light pressure, creating an exciting burst of flavor with every sip,” and they specify that they are served in drinks “beyond just teas.”
Similarly, Dunkin’ told Eater in a statement, “Dunkin’s Popping Bubbles were developed to offer our guests a delightful new option to add to any Dunkin’ iced or frozen beverages... With delicious strawberry flavor that literally bursts in your mouth, Dunkin’s Popping Bubbles are made from a simple syrup with color sourced from plants, while Boba is made from tapioca, which has a firmer consistency.”
These bubbles, of course, are not new. They are known everywhere else as “popping boba,” and are an incredibly popular topping option in frozen yogurt or boba tea shops, especially in Asia. They are an “offshoot of traditional boba,” writes Brand Eating, in which fruit juice or flavor is held together by a gel membrane that pops in the mouth. It’s a different texture than the tapioca pearls, which are gummy and chewy, but still often part of the boba menu. “Popping boba is generally easier for fast-food restaurants to add to the menu as traditional boba needs to be kept hot to keep [its] chewy texture,” writes Brand Eating, “whereas popping boba can just be placed in some ice water for holding without affecting the texture.”
As Dayna Evans recently wrote about the history of no-knead bread, “ownership of techniques and recipes is a fraught concept in both domestic and professional settings.” But not linking these drinks to boba tea culture when they are easily identifiable as such to much of the world serves to erase that cultural connection. At best it’s an act of branding, a way for Sonic and Dunkin’ to position themselves as having something new and unique on their menus. At worst it’s an act of appropriation that refuses to give credit to these drinks’ provenance.
But like many things you can lob the accusation of “appropriation” at, these restaurants aren’t sitting there scheming over boba, hoping the history books will be rewritten to say Sonic came up with it first. Fast-food chains are built to absorb and regurgitate trends, and just like Dunkin’ added avocado toast and matcha lattes and vegan sausage as soon as those trends seemed popular enough to be profitable, it’s adding a variation on bubble tea. Maybe one day these brands will figure out how to add tapioca boba to their drinks, and then the trend will only have one more place to go — everyone getting sick of it.