03 July 2010

I really love bubble tea.

I first discovered bubble tea years ago with Freau at this delicious Vietnamese place here in New Orleans, called Frosty's.  She said it was like a fruit smoothie with tapioca balls in the bottom.  I tasted one and was intruiged by the chewy tapioca--and actually really liked it.  Then when I went off to college, Badass Coffee on the Strip turned into Wickles Wicked Bean and then to Strip Teas.  I can't remember which, but one of these claimed to have bubble tea, but they were "out of pearls" almost every time I asked for it.  I assumed the bubbles and the pearls were both actually the tapioca balls.

THEN! I went to Chicago's Chinatown with the AAQT and we stopped into a place whose name we can't remember.  We stopped into a place that sold boba tea.  I wondered if it was the same as the bubble tea I had experienced, and if so, if it was a deliberate misspelling or simply an alternate spelling.

I skimmed over the history of bubble tea.  Looks like it originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and has become immensely popular in Taiwan and Hong Kong since then.  HOWEVER, it was originally just tea with different fruit flavors mixed in and shaken up.  The shaking made the bubbles, and it became known as bubble tea.  Not until the mid-80s were tapioca pearls added to the tea.  The tapioca pearls looked like bubbles, so this reinforced the already popular name.  But really, bubble tea can be bubble tea even if it doesn't have the pearls.

There are lots of different names for this drink all over the world.  Some interesting ones?

  • タピオカドリンク (Japanese): transliterated tapiokadorinku translated "tapioca drink"
  • Suco de Pobá (Portuguese): transliterated "boba juice" from interpretation of boba
  • QQ: means chewy.  Huh?  (I found a great blagpost about this.)  Q (pronounced kiu) is a common Taiwanese morpheme that no one seems to know how to write in Chinese characters.  This Taiwanese "Q" meaning "chewy" can be intensified by doubling, hence "QQ糖" ("chewy-chewy candy" or "really chewy candy").  Thus Q is clearly well established in Taiwanese as meaning "chewy," and it has been picked up on the Mainland with the same meaning (especially in advertisements).  Since I've never been able to determine a cognate for this "Q" in other Sinitic languages than Taiwanese and no one has ever been able to tell me how to write this Q morpheme with a Chinese character, I have sometimes wondered whether it might not have come from English "chewy" itself.

(Here are some noodles that are presumably al dente, or "chewy.")

But what about this word BOBA?!

I've read a couple of different things.
1.  As I suspected! BOBA - From the Chinese word 泡沫, which is in turn derived phonetically from the English word bubble.

2. However, I also read this!  Boba, a Cantonese slang, literally means the "dominatrix of breasts", connoting the image of a busty woman. "Bo" (波) is a slang for the breast which refers to the milk.

How true are these?!?!  I used Khya's secret infallible tool, YellowBridge.

1.  This word,  泡沫, is actually pàomò--which doesn't really sound like "bubble" very much.  The first part, 泡 (pào) means to bubble, to foam, to blister, or to get off with [a sexual partner].  !  The second part, 沫 (mò) means foam, suds or froth.
This all sounds like a good name for what we've described as bubble tea, however, I'm still not convinced it's where we get BOBA from.

2.  Bō, 波 means wave, ripple, surge, storm.  Ok, I can see the stretch by which this could mean breasts.

Let's break it down further.  (Chinese is fun!)  Remember mò above? Put mò and bō and side by side.  沫 and 波.  The little front part that looks like a sideways Y with two eyelashes is common to both of them!  That part, 氵 means water!  It's the second part that's different in these two characters.  In mò, 末 means end, insignificant... which sounds right for making suds or foam.  Water + insignificant = froth.  Check.  In bō, the second part of the character, 皮 means skin, hide, fur or feather (basically any exterior of the body).  I'm not sure that water + skin = wave, but water + exterior could= wave or storm.

More importantly, if in the Chinese subconscious 波 denotes wave or surge but connotes skin, I definitely see how it could come to be slang for breasts.

So in this 2nd argument BOBA referring to breasts and milk and bubble tea, what does the BA mean?  This is just my guess but I found two possibilities.

  • 把 (bǎ) means to hold or to grasp, particularly with the second half of this character, 巴 meaning to greatly desire (this is a pictographic character, picture of a snake! whatttt)
  • 拔 (bá) means to pull up, draw out by suction.  This is probably the right one.

Ding ding ding do we have a winner?!  I think so.
Bō (meaning storm but implying boobs/milk) + bá (drawn up by suction) must= bubble tea!



chungwei said...

Unfortunately, you are not quite correct.
Boba really means "big breast".

Bo (波): wave, which implies "breast" as slang.

Ba (霸): v.i. dominate; n. leader.

BoBa (波霸) means a person with big breast.

You can put "波霸" in google image search, and you will believe me.

Strictly, pearl milk tea is not necessary boba tea.

While the pearl milk tea was developed in Taiwan, the pearls at the beginning were small. Those were not and could not be called boba tea. Only pearls with large size can be called boba tea.

Nowadays in Taiwan, most the pearls in the bubble tea are large in size and are certainly called boba.

Unknown said...

Boba really means 'big breast'.

I had the original boba tea in Taipei teahouses in the early 90's. Nowadays boba tea is dispensed in plastic cups. But 20 years ago, the original boba tea was being served in the teahouses in 20-oz ceramic bowls, which led to the reference as 'big beast tea'.