QQ For You and Me: Bubble Tea, Diplomat

 

You may know it as bubble tea, tapioca tea, pearl milk tea, or boba tea. You may not know it at all. But, like popcorn chicken and scallion pancakes, bubble tea is a Taiwanese invention that’s grown to be beloved worldwide. And it’s not just a culinary triumph for the tiny democracy; it’s also become a symbol of important, and strengthening, international ties in the modern age. 

Before we get to bubble tea’s diplomatic career, though, what is it, and where did it come from? East Asian cuisines, as the food writer and historian Fuchsia Dunlop has explained in her studies of Sichuanese food, prize texture much more highly than their Western counterparts. There is a concept within them of eating something purely, or mostly, for the pleasure of its mouthfeel, which is relatively absent in other food cultures. QQ is one of those prized textures, a unique love of the Taiwanese palate. 

QQ gets its name from the Hokkien word for chewy (k’iu), and describes food which are soft, but which also offer resistance when bitten into. Mochi, handmade fish balls, and lye noodles are prominent examples of this beloved texture. Bubble tea is far and away its most famous sweet application, though. 

The history of the drink in Taiwan is the subject of much fierce debate. Liu Han-Chieh, the founder of Chun Shui Tang tea room in Taichung, claimed that her product director created the drink by pouring tapioca balls into her tea and encouraging the business to start selling the resulting combination. Meanwhile, Tu Tsong-he, the co-owner of Tainan’s Hanlin Tea Room, said that he invented the drink when he saw the preparation of white tapioca balls, a traditional snack, in a nearby market, and decided to start adding them to cold tea in 1986. Whatever its exact provenance, the drink was quick to take off in Taiwan. 

Initially, because shaved ice, milk tea, and boba were all individually popular traditional desserts, bubble tea was prepared by layering those three ingredients in a cup. Eventually, ice cubes, rather than shaved ice, became common, because the former was found to cool (and harden) the pearls too quickly, and new flavors of pearls and tea were introduced. Fruit tea, which incorporated other toppings like grass jelly or red bean, came into vogue, and shops popped up which specialized in just milk or fruit tea. It was also during this period that the name boba tea came into being; in Cantonese and Mandarin, boba is slang for large breasts, a reference to the spherical bubbles which were so large they required special straws to consume. 

While bubble tea started out as a favorite of children, both for its strange looks and because stalls were often set up in front of schools, it spread rapidly through society. Not surprising, considering it combined one of the Taiwanese palate’s favorite flavors with its most beloved texture. Because those were, and are, also well-loved in Hong Kong, the drink made its way there in the late 80s and early 90s, and then to mainland China, which, in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s post-Mao economic reforms, was eager for things new and foreign. (Hong Kong was a particularly good spot for expansion because its traditional style of milk tea, incorporating strongly brewed black tea and condensed milk, worked as well with tapioca pearls as the milder Taiwanese form). Elsewhere in Asia, its popularity has been more faddish, and in Japan and Singapore in particular, it has been both widely available and nearly impossible to find at various points in the last 20 years.

Taiwanese immigrants first brought it to the US in the 1990s, and, although it was initially well known only in Asian-American enclaves, its consumption gradually expanded to Hispanic and Native American communities, particularly the Pueblo, Navajo, and Hispano people. Independent shops and franchises of Taiwanese chains, like Happy Lemon and Onezo, both came into existence, and, eventually, bubble tea became more popular in mainstream American culture, especially among younger people. In cities all over the world, from London and Paris to Mumbai and Tel Aviv, boba tea can now be found. 

Bubble tea hasn’t stopped at being a culinary ambassador for Taiwan, though. It has become a symbol and strengthener of international ties for the little island nation. Milk Tea Alliance started as a hashtag in 2019, when Thai and Taiwanese netizens, in response to attacks by China’s 50 cent army against a Thai drama actor who posted an image that showed Hong Kong as an independent country, took to the platform to support the protesters and hit back against Chinese attacks. Although the hashtag was initially humorous (fitting in with the general strategy of the pro-democracy netizens who, for example, posted “my country is poor but your country is pooh” in response to screeds by the wumao about Thailand’s poverty), it grew into a symbol of the linkages and solidarity between freedom movements across Asia, largely fronted by young people. 

Due to the highlight which the hashtag placed on the coincidental movements, protestors and activists from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Myanmar, as well as other Asian nations, have become more cognizant of and involved in each other’s fights. Rallies in Taipei supporting some of these other movements, put together by organizations who adopted the Milk Tea Alliance messaging and ideals, have attracted the support of national politicians and major NGOs in Taiwan. Border skirmishes and arguments about dams and water rights have likewise brought Cambodia, Vietnam, and India into the fold. 

This Milk Tea Alliance, in which bubble tea stands at the representative forefront, may not seem like much, but it shows that discontent with the CCP and the territorial aggressiveness of China is widespread across the Asia-Pacific region and that many in the rising generation, in particular, holds a very negative view of that country and its government. It also displays a willingness to work together across languages, cultures, and borders, the exact opposite of what Beijing wants. Each kind of milk tea expresses a certain kind of national identity (Taiwan’s being especially important because bubble tea’s rise matches up with the cultural shift towards a distinctive national identity, and is one of the most representative symbols of the country worldwide), and them joining together shows their young citizens are willing and happy to make common cause in struggling for democracy, at home, and in the region. 

As the situation grows worse in Hong Kong, the Milk Tea Alliance stands as a bastion of hope that all is not, and will not, be lost.

Published in Foreign Policy
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  1. RushBabe49 Thatcher
    RushBabe49
    @RushBabe49

    Thank you!  I have always wondered what bubble tea was, since we have so many shops here in the Seattle area.

    • #1
  2. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    RushBabe49 (View Comment):

    Thank you! I have always wondered what bubble tea was, since we have so many shops here in the Seattle area.

    Oh, you should try it out, if you get the chance/want to. (I love it, but it doesn’t hurt that my best friend is Taiwanese, and we always buy each other bubble tea when we’re down).

    • #2
  3. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    Lye noodles. Lye. Plus noodles.

    That can’t be food.

    • #3
  4. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    KirkianWanderer: … bubble tea became more popular in mainstream American culture, especially among younger people.

    So did $16 avocado toast.

     

    • #4
  5. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: … bubble tea became more popular in mainstream American culture, especially among younger people.

    So did $16 avocado toast.

     

    This is much cheaper and infinitely better/more interesting. 

    • #5
  6. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Percival (View Comment):

    Lye noodles. Lye. Plus noodles.

    That can’t be food.

    Lye has been used for centuries to alkalize cocoa and cure olives, I’m sure it’s fine. Bagels can get dipped in it the same way those noodles do. 

    • #6
  7. Nohaaj Coolidge
    Nohaaj
    @Nohaaj

    I loved your culture and history lesson.  I and all of my colleagues at work have been to Taiwan many times.  We have many friends, and many wonderful memories (some foggier than others- but that is from consuming beverages that were not bubble tea…) I will share your post with all of them.  

    Someday in the future, I may share my experience sampling betel nuts which were given to me from Taiwanese friends without explicit directions.  Apparently, you are not supposed to swallow the juices.  So I was told after a few.  I found the ubiquitous glass booths with mini-skirted beauties selling the betel nuts almost as intoxicating and exhilarating.

     

    • #7
  8. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Nohaaj (View Comment):

    I loved your culture and history lesson. I and all of my colleagues at work have been to Taiwan many times. We have many friends, and many wonderful memories (some foggier than others- but that is from consuming beverages that were not bubble tea…) I will share your post with all of them.

    Someday in the future, I may share my experience sampling betel nuts which were given to me from Taiwanese friends without explicit directions. Apparently, you are not supposed to swallow the juices. So I was told after a few. I found the ubiquitous glass booths with mini-skirted beauties selling the betel nuts almost as intoxicating and exhilarating.

     

    Thank you!

    Taiwan is such a fascinating, wonderful place, and I would love to go. I was meant to travel there in summer of 2020, to spend two weeks with my friend, but covid put a stop to that. 

    • #8
  9. HankRhody Freelance Philosopher Contributor
    HankRhody Freelance Philosopher
    @HankRhody

    Most of the time when I’m telling someone to QQ it’s because the n00b needs to cry more. The rest of the time it’s because County Highway QQ lets you get from the bypass to downtown while avoiding Eau Claire’s worst stop light.

    • #9
  10. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Being the inquiring sort, I tried to come up with a clever search for this and settled on : “Bubble tea near me.”  It appears to be available in several Pho restaurants that I’ve patronized–Vietnamese obviously.  There’s also a smoothie place that claims to have it.

    Can you add rum?

    • #10
  11. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Being the inquiring sort, I tried to come up with a clever search for this and settled on : “Bubble tea near me.” It appears to be available in several Pho restaurants that I’ve patronized–Vietnamese obviously. There’s also a smoothie place that claims to have it.

    Can you add rum?

    Smoothie place I would avoid, unless you know the ownership is Asian. The pho shops are a much safer bet. 

    You can, probably would be best with one of the fruit tea variants or, even better, brown/black sugar bubble tea. (There are places that serve it with alcohol, but I don’t like alcohol, so I can’t vouch for how good it is).

    • #11
  12. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Very big in Taiwan and Singapore.

    • #12
  13. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    Very interesting explanation about a product I’d never heard of. Guess I’m sheltered.

    But is there really a “Fuchsia Dunlop?”

    • #13
  14. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Very interesting explanation about a product I’d never heard of. Guess I’m sheltered.

    But is there really a “Fuchsia Dunlop?”

    Thanks. 

    Yep, there is (she’s English, which explains the name a bit): 

    She’s very impressive, and good at what she does. The first westerner ever to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.

     

    • #14
  15. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Very interesting explanation about a product I’d never heard of. Guess I’m sheltered.

    But is there really a “Fuchsia Dunlop?”

    Thanks.

    Yep, there is (she’s English, which explains the name a bit):

    She’s very impressive, and good at what she does. The first westerner ever to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.

     

    And she speaks excellent Mandarin, as well as Sichuan dialect: 

    • #15
  16. OldPhil Coolidge
    OldPhil
    @OldPhil

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Very interesting explanation about a product I’d never heard of. Guess I’m sheltered.

    But is there really a “Fuchsia Dunlop?”

    Thanks.

    Yep, there is (she’s English, which explains the name a bit):

    She’s very impressive, and good at what she does. The first westerner ever to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.

     

    I was picturing a Monty Python skit.

    See the source image

    • #16
  17. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    OldPhil (View Comment):

    Very interesting explanation about a product I’d never heard of. Guess I’m sheltered.

    But is there really a “Fuchsia Dunlop?”

    Thanks.

    Yep, there is (she’s English, which explains the name a bit):

    She’s very impressive, and good at what she does. The first westerner ever to study at the Sichuan Higher Institute of Cuisine.

     

    “Fucshia Dunlop” sounds like a name Damon Runyon came up with while hungover.

    • #17
  18. Phil Turmel Coolidge
    Phil Turmel
    @PhilTurmel

    KirkianWanderer: You may not know it at all.

    Heh. That would be me.

    I’ll have to give it a try.  The etymology is propitious. (:

    • #18
  19. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Phil Turmel (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer: You may not know it at all.

    Heh. That would be me.

    I’ll have to give it a try. The etymology is propitious. (:

    I suppose that’s as good a reason as any.

    If you’re in Worcester again any time soon, get the brown sugar bubble latte at OneZo on Water Street. It’s the best, they make their boba in house and all of the components are always top notch.

    • #19
  20. Eugene Kriegsmann Member
    Eugene Kriegsmann
    @EugeneKriegsmann

    I was introduced to Bubble tea several years ago by a close friend who is Chinese. I loved it. I do understand that some part of it, possibly the tapioca, is in short supply, or so I have read. I don’t drink it very often since the calorie content is a bit more than my strict diet allows. However, whenever I make it up to the Asian Market south of Seattle, a stop at the Dim Sum restaurant followed by a visit to the Bubble Tea shop is de rigueur. 

    • #20
  21. colleenb Member
    colleenb
    @colleenb

    Eugene Kriegsmann (View Comment):

    I was introduced to Bubble tea several years ago by a close friend who is Chinese. I loved it. I do understand that some part of it, possibly the tapioca, is in short supply, or so I have read. I don’t drink it very often since the calorie content is a bit more than my strict diet allows. However, whenever I make it up to the Asian Market south of Seattle, a stop at the Dim Sum restaurant followed by a visit to the Bubble Tea shop is de rigueur.

    Ach you’re making me hungry. Can’t get dim sum around here except on the weekend. I have not tried bubble tea but KirkianWanderer has made me curious to give it try. 

    • #21
  22. Nick Plosser Coolidge
    Nick Plosser
    @NickP

    Honorary member of the Milk Tea Alliance. Was first introduced to ‘naicha’ by my Taiwanese relatives in the Bay Area in the late 90s and then had it regularly while living in Taiwan and throughout SE Asia over the next two decades. Still have it once a week at my local Taiwanese bakery. Great post and thanks! 

    • #22
  23. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Nick Plosser (View Comment):

    Honorary member of the Milk Tea Alliance. Was first introduced to ‘naicha’ by my Taiwanese relatives in the Bay Area in the late 90s and then had it regularly while living in Taiwan and throughout SE Asia over the next two decades. Still have it once a week at my local Taiwanese bakery. Great post and thanks!

    I’m going from a city that has a great Chinatown to one that has virtually none at all (undergrad to grad program move), so I am preemptively mourning the loss of good Taiwanese bakeries and easy access to bubble tea. Thank you!

    • #23
  24. Nick Plosser Coolidge
    Nick Plosser
    @NickP

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Nick Plosser (View Comment):

    Honorary member of the Milk Tea Alliance. Was first introduced to ‘naicha’ by my Taiwanese relatives in the Bay Area in the late 90s and then had it regularly while living in Taiwan and throughout SE Asia over the next two decades. Still have it once a week at my local Taiwanese bakery. Great post and thanks!

    I’m going from a city that has a great Chinatown to one that has virtually none at all (undergrad to grad program move), so I am preemptively mourning the loss of good Taiwanese bakeries and easy access to bubble tea. Thank you!

    That’s unfortunate as bubble tea and late night Taiwanese bakeries helped me get through grad school, as I’m sure they would you. You may have to start ordering the ingredients online for the duration of your program! Best of luck in your studies. 

    • #24
  25. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    Nick Plosser (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Nick Plosser (View Comment):

    Honorary member of the Milk Tea Alliance. Was first introduced to ‘naicha’ by my Taiwanese relatives in the Bay Area in the late 90s and then had it regularly while living in Taiwan and throughout SE Asia over the next two decades. Still have it once a week at my local Taiwanese bakery. Great post and thanks!

    I’m going from a city that has a great Chinatown to one that has virtually none at all (undergrad to grad program move), so I am preemptively mourning the loss of good Taiwanese bakeries and easy access to bubble tea. Thank you!

    That’s unfortunate as bubble tea and late night Taiwanese bakeries helped me get through grad school, as I’m sure they would you. You may have to start ordering the ingredients online for the duration of your program! Best of luck in your studies.

    Thanks! I know exactly what you mean; my best friend at university is Taiwanese, and we always get each other bubble tea if we’re down, or use the promise of it as motivation to get through tests and big research projects. 

    • #25
  26. William Laing Member
    William Laing
    @user_680378

    1. Dunlop is a Scots name

    2. Instant noodles, too, are from Taiwan, in that the inventor was man from Taiwan, resident in Japan. He took a Japanese-form name Momofuku Ando.

    • #26
  27. tigerlily Member
    tigerlily
    @tigerlily

    I have to admit I’m having a hard time with the little flyer celebrating India-Taiwan relations via bubble tea. But, that’s only because the woman in the cartoon reminds me of that horrid Senator Hirono of Hawaii.

    • #27
  28. KirkianWanderer Coolidge
    KirkianWanderer
    @KirkianWanderer

    tigerlily (View Comment):

    I have to admit I’m having a hard time with the little flyer celebrating India-Taiwan relations via bubble tea. But, that’s only because the woman in the cartoon reminds me of that horrid Senator Hirono of Hawaii.

    I wouldn’t have thought of that before (because they don’t look similar in real life), but I can see what you mean. It’s Tsai Ing-wen, the very impressive (not only because she’s an LSE alumna) President of Taiwan. 

    • #28
  29. KCVolunteer Lincoln
    KCVolunteer
    @KCVolunteer

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Lye noodles. Lye. Plus noodles.

    That can’t be food.

    Lye has been used for centuries to alkalize cocoa and cure olives, I’m sure it’s fine. Bagels can get dipped in it the same way those noodles do.

    There’s also lutefisk. Cured whitefish pickled in lye. A Christmas ‘favorite’ among Minnesotans of Scandinavian descent.

    • #29
  30. Percival Thatcher
    Percival
    @Percival

    KCVolunteer (View Comment):

    KirkianWanderer (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Lye noodles. Lye. Plus noodles.

    That can’t be food.

    Lye has been used for centuries to alkalize cocoa and cure olives, I’m sure it’s fine. Bagels can get dipped in it the same way those noodles do.

    There’s also lutefisk. Cured whitefish pickled in lye. A Christmas ‘favorite’ among Minnesotans of Scandinavian descent.

    That’s not food either!

     

    • #30