Food

Boba in sandwiches and pizza is pushing the limits of milk tea

Oct 02, 2018

Welcome to Taipei, the bubble milk tea capital of the world. Here, reusable boba cup holders swing from shoulders, and a stubborn two-cup-a-day habit is a common gripe.

Born in the bustling city of Taichung, this popular drink in Taiwan is known by different names around the world—boba tea, pearl tea, tapioca milk tea. A mouthwatering mix of fresh milk, black tea and springy, caramelized tapioca pearls shaken together like a martini and served with a comically fat straw is what unites them all.

But while the drink is a firm staple in the identity and culinary habits of the city, boba—the chewy, black tapioca balls served with most bubble tea cups—is starting to infiltrate the food scene.

Boba—the chewy, black tapioca balls served with most bubble tea cups—is starting to infiltrate the food scene.

See, when you’re in Taiwan, it’s hard to avoid the 21,000-plus tea shops serving up the sweet-smelling silky tea concoction. But while bubble milk tea shops are a dime a dozen, a growing number of cafes and restaurants are serving up quirky boba-inspired meals that you would stun even the most seasoned boba drinker.

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Even popcorn, pancakes and pizza aren’t off-limits to the rising food trend in Taipei. The end result? Sweet-as-Splenda waffles with a sprinkling of boba pearls, savory sandwiches a tinge of black tea, and cocktails with a dollop of boba-laden milk cream. Even popcorn, pancakes and pizza aren’t off-limits to the rising food trend in Taipei.

This is Boba 2.0—a budding movement to reinvent the country's mainstay staple. But word of caution, the trend is meant to be more “photogenic” and “Insta-worthy” than anything, says Tina Fong, co-founder of Taipei Eats food tours. The flavors might not always mesh so well, but hey, if there’s any country that can succeed in such a culinary feat, might as well be Taiwan, right?

“We Taiwanese will throw the boba texture onto anything these days,” she explains. “Just watch the calories.”

Bubble Milk Tea Pancake

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Imagine fluffy, black tea-infused pancakes stacked on top of one another, doused with a generous helping of frothy, creamy milk syrup and a generous dollop of playfully springy tapioca pearls on top.

The pancakes “tastes exactly like the boba milk tea that you drink. The pancakes are soft and spongy, and the pearls are very Q,” says Weixin Zhong, the mastermind behind this treat.

Q is that hard-to-capture combination of chewy, bouncy and springy that Taiwan’s tapioca pearls are known for worldwide. Fair warning though—this dish at Belle Époque is overwhelmingly sweet.

Black Sugar and Boba Milk Tea Waffles

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Tucked in an alley next to the bustling, commercial heart of Taipei, the StayReal Café by Gabee is dishing up mini baked waffles that perfectly mimic the flavor profile of boba milk tea without being overpoweringly sweet.

The literal icing on the cake is a scoop of creamy vanilla ice cream piled high with crushed brown sugar and shiny, black tapioca pearls.

The trick is to “master the water temperature” and “simmering time” in order to make that the pearls tastes like chewy, concentrated brown sugar “bombs,” says marketing manager Yi-an Chen.

Honey Boba Pearl Dessert Pizza

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Who knew bubble milk tea could take the form of a pipin’ hot pizza too? Here’s a pizza creation that might raise eyebrows in traditional Napoli, but fits squarely in Taiwan’s culinary scene.

At the Tino’s Pizza, you can chow down on their must-order item: handmade “honey pearl” bubble milk pizza with freshly cut peach, tart kiwi, sugary mango and of course, the quintessential tapioca pearls, sprinkled throughout for texture.

A creamy milk tea sauce is piped on top a crispy breaded start-shaped crust, making for an overall fragrant sweet, sour and chewy mixture that’s unexpectedly delicious.

“It’s like drinking a cup of pearl milk tea, the richness of milk tea, the aroma with the wheat crust, the sweet and sour taste of the fresh fruit, and the snap of chewy tapioca pearls. The flavor mixes and merges together well,” says Weiya Hong of Tino’s Pizza.

Boba Shaved Ice

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Ice Monster is a late-night hangout spot for teeny boppers and working adults alike. The menu is chock filled with an dizzying array of shaved ice treats, from coke to mango to almond.

But don’t miss out on their special Taiwanese boba milk tea shaved ice. The bowl is big enough for two or three people to share and comes complete with shaved black tea, panna cotta, black boba orbs and hints of brown sugar.

It’s the ultimate cool-me-down snack in Taiwan’s hot, sticky summers.

Pearl Latte Chiffon Cake

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

Saunter into this brightly-lit dessert shop and chances are you’ll see groups of Instagrammers bending backwards to get the perfect shot of BoKa’s main attraction: the fluffy, light and not-too-sweet pearl latte chiffon cake.

But as with all things Insta-famous, supplies go fast. Word of advice: call in advance to make sure they’re not sold out that day.

Pocket Bubble Tea Toast

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Photo: Leslie Nguyen-Okwu

The Raohe Night Market in Taipei is known for many traditional Taiwanese snacks, including pepper pork buns and sweet tangyuan rice balls. But locals have slowly started to discover the wonders of bubble tea fried toasts that are selling, well, like hot cakes (excuse the mixed metaphors).

This creme de resistance is a huge heap of squishy brown sugar-soaked black milk tea pearls and caramel lotus sauce stuffed inside two ovaltine-infused toasted slices of bread. The street food vendor who brought this boba-based invention to life is one of many “foodtrepreneurs” in Taipei striving to reinvent Taiwan’s boba staple.