Food Knowledge, Tea Knowledge

What are Tapioca Pearls?

So What Exactly are Tapioca Pearls?

One feature that make bubble milk tea (also called Boba or Pearl Milk tea) stand out from other drinks are its big, chewy, round tapioca balls. In fact, 1 cup of tapioca balls contains 500 calories, turning this drink into more of a snack than a simple beverage. Although tapioca balls complement tea perfectly, many people may be curious about these strange pearls and how this combination came about.

Where did tapioca pearls come from?

The starch used to create tapioca pearls come from the roots of cassava plants. Cassava plants, a native of South America, are small to medium sized bushes with roots extending deep underground similar to potatoes. Because these plants thrive well in tropical climate and are extremely drought tolerant, they were transported by merchants on ships to be sold to Asian countries with a similar climate. One country was Taiwan, the birthplace of bubble tea.

In Taiwan, drinking hot tea was common practice. There were many well established tea shops and branches lining the streets.  After farmers began growing cassava plants in Taiwan, tapioca was processed from the extracted starch, and white tapioca pearls became readily available in local markets. During the 1980s, Taiwanese tea shops started introducing cold tea along with white tapioca pearls, which proved hugely profitable. Later tea shops added honey and brown sugar to the white tapioca pearls, giving them the familiar sweet taste and black color.

Why add tapioca pearls?

But why would tapioca pearls, a signature of the drink, be added into a beverage in the first place? One possible explanation is the QQ texture appreciated in Taiwanese cuisine. QQ texture refers to the chewiness and firmness in food. Common examples include glutinous rice balls desert, fish balls in noodles, and noodles strands. The inspiration of the term QQ likely comes from the local Taiwanese word that sounds similar to “Q”, meaning “chewy and soft”. An identical term is “Al dente” in Italian, which is used to describe pasta that is perfectly chewy as in not too hard or too soft.

Of course, bubble tea is not only enjoyed with its iconic tapioca pearls, but can be enjoyed by itself or with other creative toppings such as cheese, popcorn, cotton candy, etc.  

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