In Taiwan, Grabbing ‘Boba’ Means Something Else Entirely

taiwan boba

Pearl tea, bubble tea, bubble cup, and boba are the most common names we use to refer to our favorite tea-based, tapioca ball-filled drink from Taiwan.

Judging by the way the tapioca balls look, most of these names are self-explanatory, as the chewy balls made from cassava starch do resemble bubbles or pearls.


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The term boba, however, is a bit more complicated, especially when it is traced back to Taiwan, where the “bubble tea phenomenon” originated.  

Elsewhere, the term “boba” is often used by Asian Americans and other English speakers as a transliteration of the word “bubble” when referring to the tasty beverage.

However, this is not the case in Taiwan, where the term boba is actually a slang word for “large breasts.”

In both Cantonese and Mandarin, the word boba 波霸 is the combination of the word for bubble and the word for big, which, when used together, form the slang for “big boobs.”

That is why inviting a local to grab some boba in Taiwan might spark some unexpected reactions.

In Taiwan, the drink is more commonly referred to as zhenzhu 珍珠 (pearl milk tea), although some local shops, which might have picked up on the term from English-speaking customers, have also adopted the word “boba” to refer to the variants with bigger, 7-millimeter (0.2-inch) tapioca pearls.


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Some reports also claimed that the term boba originated from one local tea shop owner who decided to use larger tapioca balls to offer something new to his customers. He reportedly chose the more provocative term on purpose in an attempt to make his tea stand out.  

Now, when used to describe the drink, the characters 波霸奶茶 directly translate to “boba milk tea,” and loosely to “bubble milk tea.”

Featured Image via Instagram / bobakingsf 

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