Taiwan is the undisputed boba capital of the world: Here, the midday caffeine hit is a boba break, not a coffee run, and a shoulder-slung boba cupholder is the must-have accessory. Over the last several decades, these bracing cups of sweet, creamy, chewy refreshment — which are also called “bubble tea” and “pearl milk tea” — have become a go-to beverage throughout not just Taiwan, but also all over Asia, North America, and Europe.
Okay, but what even is it?
The word “boba” can refer to either a broad category of chunky drinks — including everything from iced tea with tapioca pearls to fresh juice loaded with fruity bits — or black tapioca pearls themselves. Boba tea, bubble tea, and pearl milk tea — in Taiwan, zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶) — are essentially different names for the same thing; the monikers differ by location, but also personal preference. (In the U.S., the East Coast favors bubble tea, while the West prefers boba.) Whatever you call it, in its most basic form, the drink consists of black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls, all shaken together like a martini and served with that famously fat straw to accommodate the marbles of tapioca that cluster at the bottom of the cup.
The pearls are made from tapioca starch, an extract of the South American cassava plant, which came to Taiwan from Brazil via Southeast Asia during the period of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945. Tapioca pearls start white, hard, and rather tasteless, and then are boiled inside huge, bubbling vats and steeped in sugary caramelized syrup for hours, until eventually they’re transformed into those black, springy tapioca pearls we’ve come to know and slurp.
It’s that addictive texture that’s become the boba signature. Known locally as Q or QQ (as in, very Q), the untranslatable bouncy, rubbery, chewy consistency is treasured in Taiwan. Look around and you’ll see the Q plastered prominently on food packaging and affixed to shop signs. It’s also key to the texture of mochi, fish balls, and noodles. Indeed, the quality of boba drinks is measured by how much Q power lurks within the tapioca pearls. Like the Italian notion of al dente, Q is difficult to master and hard to capture — boba with the right Q factor isn’t too soft or too bouncy, but has just the right amount of toothiness.
Prior to the 1980s, Q-rich tapioca balls were a common topping for desserts like the ubiquitous heaps of snow-like shaved ice found throughout Taiwan, while milk tea was already a favorite local drink. But the two weren’t combined until, as one version of the story goes, Liu Han Chieh began serving cold tea at his Taichung tea shop, Chun Shui Tang (春水堂人文茶館), sometime in the early ’80s. A few years later, the company’s product manager, Lin Hsiu Hui, plopped some tapioca balls into her iced tea at a staff meeting, and the rest, apparently, is beverage history. There are rival origin myths, too: One credits Hanlin Tea Room (翰林茶館), a tea shop in Tainan. The one thing that everybody agrees upon is that the name “boba” is a reference to the 1980s Hong Kong sex symbol Amy Yip, whose nickname, “Boba,” is also a Chinese slang term for her most famous pair of physical assets.
Since its beginnings, the basic tapioca iced tea recipe has evolved into an entire genre of drinks. Milks can range from whole and skim to nondairy substitutes like almond and coconut — or often there’s no milk (or milk-like product) at all, as in the case of cold tea-infused or juice-based drinks. The pearls can be fat as marbles, small as peas, square-shaped, red, or even crystal clear. There are now more than 21,000 boba shops in Taiwan, with thousands more around the world — many belonging to successful international chains like CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice (都可), Gong Cha, and Sharetea. And while the term was once confined to tea shops, you’ll find throughout Taiwan that the boba trend is now being incorporated into desserts, sandwiches, cocktails, and even skincare. Wherever you are here, if you dig deep enough, you’ll eventually strike boba.
As the sheer number of boba options reaches critical mass, it’s hard for a boba slinger to stand out. The boba arms race escalated dramatically over the last decade — especially since Instagram started seeping into Taiwanese culture — and a new breed of shop has begun offering more elaborate drinks with outrageous flavors and virality-primed color combinations. And as neighboring China grows its role on the global stage and aims to erode Taiwan’s international influence, Taiwan’s boba shops are fast becoming unofficial embassies for cultural outreach. Boba diplomacy, in all its permutations, is helping the world better understand Taiwanese culture and cuisine. But first, you have to understand boba — in all of its 2019 cheese-topped, charcoal-stained, fruit-filled glory. Here, then, is a detailed boba breakdown, as well as all the best places in Taipei (and nearby Taoyuan) to get your fix.
Classic Milk Tea
The one that started it all. Black tea is shaken with frothy milk, crushed ice, and a few generous handfuls of marble-sized, caramelized tapioca pearls. There are versions with different milks and various teas, but the classic still satisfies. Where to get it: Huangjin Bubble Tea (黃巾珍珠奶茶), No. 3-1, Lane 205, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Da’an District, Taipei; also at Milk Shop (迷客夏) and Chatime (日出茶太) with multiple locations across Taipei
Ultra-rich brown sugar boba tea has been an explosive hit in Taiwan, made popular in part thanks to the chain Tiger Sugar — a milk-heavy boba drink doused with a generous shot of cloyingly sweet brown sugar syrup, all swirling in a beautiful gradient of cocoa-browns and pearly whites. Where to get it: Chen San Ding (陳三鼎), No. 2, Alley 8, Lane 316, Section 3, Luosifu Road, Zhongzheng District, Taipei; also Tiger Sugar (老虎堂), multiple locations across Taipei
Taro Milk Tea
Taro bubble tea originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and later swept throughout Asia and the West. Notable for its color, which runs from purple-tinged brown to nearly lilac, and its coconut-like flavor, taro (a root vegetable similar to a sweet potato) is pureed and added to boba milk tea, where it acts as a thickener and flavoring. Where to get it: CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice, multiple locations across Taipei
If milk isn’t your cup of tea, there are fresh fruit-based boba drinks that have the same addictive textures. Popular flavors include mango, lychee, winter melon, lemon, and even tomato, and they come bobbing with boba pearls but also other stuff, like aiyu jelly (made with the seeds of a local variety of creeping fig), watermelon cubes, and crunchy passionfruit seeds. Where to get it: Yi Fang (一芳) Taiwan Fruit Tea and MR.WISH (鮮果茶玩家), multiple locations across Taipei
Add-ins have long since expanded beyond tapioca balls, and now include options like grass jelly, aloe vera, almond jelly, custardy egg pudding, adzuki beans, panna cotta, chia seeds, sweet potato balls, even Oreo cookies, because why not? The tapioca balls themselves have slowly evolved beyond the standard sugary taste, and now cover a wild spectrum of flavors, including sea salt, cheese, wood ear mushroom, quinoa, tomato, chocolate, Sichuan pepper, jujube, and barley. Where to get it: Babo Arms (珍珠手作自動化茶飲), No. 11, Lane 248, Section 4, Zhongxiao East Road, Da’an District, Taipei; also at Day Day Drink (日日裝茶) and Don’t Yell at Me (不要對我尖叫，日常茶間) with multiple locations across Taipei
Fueled by Instagram, shops in Taiwan are churning out drinks designed to look as good as — or better than — they taste, ideally while clutched in full sunlight by a freshly manicured hand. Scroll through a boba-focused feed to spot bright, spicy drinks with red-hot pearls and a sprinkling of chile powder, tie-dye versions made with blue butterfly pea, and jet-black cups infused with inky (and detoxifying) charcoal. Some shops are also turning toward alternative organic sweeteners like honey and agave nectar for the health-conscious. Where to get it: Bobii Frutii (珍珠水果特調), No. 8, Lane 13, Yongkang Street, Da’an District, Taipei; the moment (這一刻), No. 41, Section 2, Longgang Road, Zhongli District, Taoyuan; also at TopQ Bubble Tea (塔彼Ｑ) with multiple locations across Taipei
A Taiwanese night market stand began combining powdered cheese and salt with whipping cream and milk to form a foamy, tangy layer on the top of a cup of cold tea. The cheese-topped drink is now popular in many parts of Asia, and has found an audience Stateside as well. Where to get it: Chun Yang Tea (春陽茶事); multiple locations across Taipei
Edibles, Cocktails, Skincare, and All the Rest
Considering the amount of chewing already involved, it’s no surprise that boba pearls are now starring in a number of culinary applications, working their way into everything from souffle pancakes, sandwiches, hot pot soup, pizza, creme brulee, and of course the stalwart, shaved ice. Where to get it: Belle Époque (美好年代), No. 23, Lane 52, Section 1, Da’an Road, Da’an District, Taipei; also at Baoguo (包果) and Ice Monster, both with multiple locations across Taipei
For those who wish for their boba stiff, there are now boba cocktails, made with vodka, tequila, gin, rum, or bourbon. Bars throughout Taiwan and beyond are experimenting with these alcoholic boba concoctions, and Los Angeles even has a boba-centric bar dedicated to liquor-filled spins on traditional boba flavors. Where to get it: Chinese Whispers (悄悄話餐酒館), No. 11, Alley 2, Lane 345, Section 4, Ren’ai Road, Da’an District, Taipei
And then, go ahead, smear boba all over your face if you want. Taiwan now offers lotions, facial blotting tissues, candles, and even boba milk tea face masks (with real boba pearls inside), all boasting the signature, sticky-sweet fragrance of boba milk tea. Gimmicky, sure, but anything in the name of beauty — and boba. Where to get it: Annie’s Way Mask Gallery (安妮絲薇)
Leslie Nguyen-Okwu is a bilingual journalist based in Taipei, Taiwan, and covers emerging Asia.
Sean Marc Lee is a portraiture, lifestyle, editorial, and street fashion photographer who splits his time between Taipei, Tokyo, and Los Angeles.