If you’re hip to the latest pop culture trends you might have noticed teens around the world going crazy for a certain tea-based drink. There are many names for it. Some call it pearl milk tea, or bubble tea, but it’s most commonly known as boba milk tea. The tea comes in many flavors from Japanese matcha (green tea), brown sugar, and even strawberry.
Boba tea is quickly gaining popularity in Japan with new tea shops popping up all over the place every day, including boba shops in Shibuya and other areas popular with young people. It’s become the on-trend drink that has people lining up out the door for a sip of some satisfying tea. But what exactly is boba tea? Is it Japanese or did it come from somewhere else?
Is Boba Tea Japanese?
Despite the huge popularity of boba tea in Japan, this tasty treat actually originated in Taiwan in the early 1980s. The drink is known locally in Taiwan as zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶). There are two different categories of boba tea; teas with milk and teas without milk. While the most common drink flavors are green or black tea, the popularity of the drink has spawned other fruit-based flavors as well. The signature of boba tea is the black tapioca balls that come with the drink. Those tapioca balls (珍珠 or タピオカ) are sweet, chewy, and make the perfect addition to this refreshing beverage. While not essential, the consistency of the tapioca balls can make or break the quality of the drink. The term known locally as QQ in Taiwan refers to the chewy, rubbery, and bouncy consistency of foods like mochi, noodles, and of course tapioca balls. QQ is difficult to master, but boba that is expertly crafted will bring the right amount of chewiness required to nail that QQ feeling!
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The popularity of boba tea began to spread all over Asia in the 90's as young teens became hip to the trend. The drink has become a staple treat among snack aficionados around the world. Some of the most popular shops will have people line up for more than thirty minutes just to get one cup. The wait can be especially long at some of the best boba shops in Tokyo on a busy weekend. The boba tea craze has even expanded beyond drinks, with boba fanatics creating various bubble tea-based snacks like ice cream, pizza, and toast.
As the drink has diffused across the world, the genre of teas has evolved as well. While milk is the most common base for the recipe, many drinks include non-dairy substitutes or juices. The tapioca balls can be black, red, pink, or even crystal clear bringing customers even more flavorful fun. For newcomers to boba tea, the drink can look a little intimidating, so let’s go over what are the most common flavors you can find.
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Classic Boba Tea Flavors
Classic Milk Tea
The original flavor, milk tea, that started the boba trend. Black tea is shaken with frothy milk, crushed ice, and a handful of tapioca balls. It’s the easiest drink for those who have never tried boba tea since tapioca balls serve as a sweet surprise in contrast to the more mild taste of the tea. Japanese milk tea is especially delicious with or without tapioca.
Brown Sugar Tea
This ultra-rich flavor has become just as popular as the classic milk tea. Using milk tea as the base, the drink is doused with a generous serving of brown sugar syrup topped off with the black tapioca balls. The drink is significantly sweeter than classic milk tea so watch out if you don’t have a sweet tooth.
Giving a spin on Japanese matcha, matcha boba is a nice fusion of Taiwanese tea and Japanese flavors! The mild taste of the tea is enhanced by the sweet tapioca balls at the bottom of the drink. If you love all things matcha this is the flavor you should try.
By the way, if you're interested in preparing matcha at home, you can learn how to make matcha without a whisk!
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Popular Boba Tea Cafes in Japan
After learning a bit about this delicious drink, you might be wondering where you can try a cup for yourself. Since the boba tea craze has taken Japan by storm, there are several boba tea shops throughout Japan you can visit.
The Taiwanese chain, Gong Cha, is one of the most popular boba tea chains throughout the country. The drinks capture the eyes and taste buds of consumers. They offer the classic boba tea flavors but they offer a variety of fruit-based teas with fruit-flavored coconut jelly for flavoring. Gong Cha has locations near most major stations in Tokyo, so it’s probably the most convenient place to grab a drink.
Bubble tea shops in Tokyo always offer a unique experience of their own. Saisabo in Harajuku is the place to go for a truly Tokyo experience!
The most popular drink is the Rock Salt Cheese Tea. Though it seems like an unlikely combination, it creates a unique and pleasant flavor. The milk tea is topped with a salted cheese foam which gives the drink a bit of a tangy cream cheese flavor. If you’re not up for trying this cheesy beverage, then the Fluffy Milk Tea topped with ice cream, mango, cotton candy, and tapioca balls is an excellent drink to try and very Insta-worthy.
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Chun Sui Tang
Another Taiwanese chain has established itself as a bubble tea giant in Japan. They claim to be the originator of bubble tea as the founder Liu Han-Chieh traveled to Japan and observed the Japanese drinking coffee cold. He took the idea back to Taiwan and mixed the cold tea with tapioca pearls. Their drinks lean more on the traditional side of tea-making so while you can’t expect too many "instagram-able" combinations, you’re certainly guaranteed the authenticity of their craft.
Coco Fresh Tea & Juice
This colorful juice stand is slowly taking over Japan. As you can tell by the colorful logo, this cafe fits right into Japan's kawaii culture and aesthetic while also serving up the classic drinks. The big attraction is the fruit-based tea drinks and their large assortment of fruit-flavored additions. The shop is especially popular since they specialize in takeout drinks, as many of their stores are too small to allow customers to sit down.
Japan is full of unique bubble tea for everyone to try. Next time you’re walking the streets of Tokyo city, why don’t you stop by for a drink? Are there any flavors you’d like to try? Let us know in a comment below.