Feb 12th, 2021, 10:21 AM

Boba's Claim to Fame

By Kate Tuttle
Boba. Image Credit: Gita Krishnamurti/Unsplash
A little over 30 years after it was invented, boba has risen to international fame. This is how Taiwan’s national drink became a staple in major cities across the globe.

In 2010, there were no boba tea shops in my hometown of Cupertino, California. Now, there are 23 and counting. Boba has taken my life, my hometown, and the world by storm.  But just how was this beverage from a tiny island nation in Asia able to rise to international fame in such a short amount of time? Here is what I found out. 

TP Tea in Cupertino, California. Image credit: Kate Tuttle.



To start off with a little background, boba was invented in the 1980’s in Taiwan, but there are two tearooms that claim that they invented it. The Hanlin Tearoom of Tainan claims that they invented it in 1986, with inspiration from the tapioca balls that the owner Tu Tsong-He saw at a local market. The Chun Shui Tang Tearoom in Taichung, however, claims that they invented boba in 1988, when their production development manager poured her fen yuan (traditional pearls made with sweet potato powder) into her iced tea. The argument between the two tearooms got so heated that it was brought to court in October of 2006. However, the judge refused to pass judgement based on the lack of evidence from both parties. Whether you believe Hanlin Tearoom or Chun Shui Tang Tearoom, one thing is for sure: boba tea is undisputedly a Taiwanese creation. For the Taiwanese, boba tea is a source of national pride. 

Shinlin District, Taiwan. Image credit: Joel Fulgencio/Unsplash.


There are a plethora of names for this iconic drink: boba, bubble milk tea, pearl milk tea, tapioca tea, or for the French, thé aux perles. The most common name in Taiwan is 珍珠 奶茶 (zhēnzhū nǎichá) which translates to "pearl milk tea."  But where did the name ‘boba’ come from? Contrary to popular belief, boba is not a shortened version of bubble tea. 波霸 奶茶 (bōbà nǎichá) was first used to describe this drink when a new variety of tea from Tainan came out that had larger tapioca balls, the same as the ones we see in most drinks today. At the time, boba was actually a slang term for “big breasts.” Yet despite the rather crude meaning, the name stuck in Taiwan and took off around the globe, and it is now one of the staple names for this popular beverage.

Crossing Borders

Boba rose to popularity in Eastern and South-Eastern Asia in the 1990s. Naturally, boba soon made its way into the Asian enclaves around the world. However, boba really started to gain traction in the Western world in the mid 2000s with the introduction of social media. There was a big surge in boba shops in the U.S around 2011-2013 as a result of its social media popularity. In Paris, bubble thé salons have grown exponentially over the past decade, with almost 80 shops specializing in boba today. These boba shops are scattered around Paris with a large cluster in Japantown around Rue Saint-Anne in the 1st and 2nd arr. as well as in the Quartier Asiatique in the 13th arr. Now you can find boba in Lyon, Lille, Grenoble, and other major cities in France.  

Bubble tea in France. Image credit: Seamus Walsh/Creative Commons

How Boba Rose To Fame

Boba wouldn’t have been able to gain global fame if not for the two waves it rode upon: the Asian culture wave and the social media wave. Asian food and culture is constantly on the rise in popularity, and has exploded in recent decades thanks to pop culture like anime and k-pop. But even greater than this Asian wave in helping boost boba to the international stage was the introduction of social media, and in particular, photo-based social media. With the newfound ability to share photos to people around the globe, new social media sites like Instagram bred a new generation of people who take visual presentation and trendiness of food to a whole other level. One of the best examples of this is in the global coffee chain Starbucks, whose rise to mass global popularity was due in large part to this social media movement. Suddenly, holding a coffee drink or posting it on Instagram made you “trendy,” and this along with its unique flavors catapulted Starbucks into stardom. In many ways, boba’s success story mirrors that of Starbucks. Boba is undoubtedly an “instagram-worthy” food, with its pastel colors and fun boba balls. It comes to no surprise that boba, with its visual appeal, was able to take social media by storm.

Woman holding Starbucks drink. Image credit: Jasmin Schuler/Unsplash.


Yet, we can not accredit boba’s success purely to these movements. The reason why boba has stayed around for decades and is still growing in popularity is because of boba’s unique appeal. While it has a delicious taste, what sets this drink apart from other drinks is its versatility and customizability. Unlike coffee which has a strong distinct flavor, tea is much more subtle and diverse, making it possible for it to be paired with nearly any flavor you can think of. This makes boba tea appealing to a wider audience, and also gives boba the capability to evolve quickly and keep up with consumer interest. In addition to the endless flavors to choose from, customers can also customize their drink, with numerous combinations possible.  Many boba shops offer various customization possibilities in tea base, flavor, milk, cream, sugar levels, ice levels, and toppings. Boba tea is very flexible to the consumer, which is one of its most appealing points. Of course, the utilization of chewy toppings itself makes boba unique from all other drinks. Toppings like pearls, jellies and puddings add an additional texture and flavor component to the tea that makes it more fun to drink. That is how boba has established itself as a whole separate category from its beverage counterparts and maintained its popularity thus far.

So is boba just a passing trend? I don’t think so. Boba is an ever-evolving drink, and it is already becoming a staple in Asian cuisine. I believe that boba will be here for a while, so we can sit back, relax, and enjoy our chewy, delectable drinks for some time to come.