Papaya milk is the lesser known cousin of Taiwan’s famous export bubble tea.

What is Taiwanese papaya milk, boba’s quirky sidekick?

Apr 21, 2020

Bubble tea might be Taiwan’s most famous cultural export, but there’s one drink that says even more about the island’s history and unique climate.

Found in cafes across Taiwan, papaya milk is like the wayward cousin to its more famous counterpart, bubble tea.

Topped with a slight froth, this creamy and mildly sweet drink is a refreshing treat. While those who relish the floral fragrance of papaya would love the combination, others might find it pungent and intolerable.

Some people love it, some people hate it.
Some people love it, some people hate it. / Photo: Shutterstock

In Taiwan, papaya milk has long been a staple, its origins tied to the island’s geographic location as well as agricultural and industrial development in the 1970s.

The drink’s uniqueness lies in the combination of fresh papaya and milk. At first glance, it doesn’t sound all that impressive—until you realize the two ingredients thrive in vastly different environments.

As a tropical fruit, papaya relies on plenty of sunlight all year round, while dairy survives best in temperate climates.

Taiwan, despite its small size, has both.

“Taiwanese love to blend everything with milk.”

Huang Yan-xiang

Huang Yan-xiang, 24, grew up in Pingtung, a southern county known for its warm climate. Some of Taiwan’s biggest papaya plantations can be found in Pingtung, where ample sunlight has enriched the local harvest of sweet red papayas.

Unlike many Taiwanese, Huang is not a big fan of bubble tea. “I prefer papaya milk for the pleasant mix of aroma and rich texture,” he says. “Plus, Taiwanese love to blend everything with milk anyway.”

How Taiwan’s unique climate gave birth to a quirky drink

The main island of Taiwan lies right on the Tropic of Cancer, which means the northern half enjoys a more temperate subtropical climate, while the southern half experiences the heat and humidity typical of tropical regions.

Pingtung County, located in the south, benefits from hot, rainy weather, allowing a variety of agricultural produce to thrive. The northern half, meanwhile, is flush with dairy farms.

(Read more: The ultimate bucket list: Hiking Taiwan's 100 mountains)

The earliest milk farms were established in Taiwan during the Japanese colonial era, according to the Council of Agriculture, but their numbers were small. During World War II, the Japanese military slaughtered some of the herds for food supplies, further reducing dairy production.

In the 1960s, the Taiwanese government started assigning specific areas to dairy production as a way to reduce reliance on imported milk powder and promote local agriculture.

To expand the dairy industry, the government sent young farmers to the United States and New Zealand for professional training and started promoting milk consumption for children in school.

“Papaya milk was sold early on among freshly squeezed juices in Taiwan,” says Chen Tsung-liang, general secretary of the Taiwan Beverage Association, a nonprofit that trains beverage specialists. “Freshness is the key, of course, and Taiwan’s agricultural produce provides an advantage to making these blended beverages.”

Legend has it that a night market hawker experimented with mixing milk and a variety of fruits. The papaya combo stood out as the most delicious.

A fruit juice stand in Taiwan that also sells papaya milk.
A fruit juice stand in Taiwan that also sells papaya milk. / Photo: Shutterstock

By the 1970s, Taiwan’s industrialization stimulated domestic demand for household appliances, including the refrigerators and blenders core to making papaya milk. Ice and fruit shops became popular gathering places.

“Shaved ice, watermelon juice, and papaya milk were all part of local culture,” Chen says.

Why papaya milk never caught on like bubble tea

Despite its popularity within Taiwan, papaya milk never caught on the same way bubble tea did. Part of the reason, according to Chen, is the flavor profile.

“Bubble tea is more universal and has a somewhat familiar taste for milk tea consumers overseas, but papaya milk is not for everyone,” Chen says. “A lot of foreigners are scared of the smell and taste.”

Papaya milk is also not made to last, even if stored in a refrigerator. Papain, an enzyme in papayas, dissolves the protein in milk, resulting in an unpleasant bitter taste. Variables such as species and level of ripeness also affect the flavor.

Boxed papaya milk is processed under high temperature to get rid of the papain enzymes. Some factories also use papaya powder.
Boxed papaya milk is processed under high temperature to get rid of the papain enzymes. Some factories also use papaya powder. / Photo: Shutterstock

Still, the drink has appealed to taste buds in Asia, where papaya milk shops abound in cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore. Aficionados swear by the drink’s nutritional benefits since the papain enzyme is believed to promote gut health and immunity.

Violet Dai, 28, a Hong Kong resident, remembers the boba obsession when Taiwan’s tea shop chain ComeBuy opened its first store in her city in 2008. It was like a citywide addiction, she says, but papaya milk seemed like a more healthy alternative.

“Papaya milk helps with my digestion,” she says, “and the frothiness just makes me feel like I’m getting a hug.”

(Read more: Boiled cola, beef juice, and other eccentric Hong Kong drinks)

While the traditional ice and fruits shops in Taiwan have mostly been replaced by bubble tea chains, fresh papaya milk remains a staple at night markets.

It may never have the global appeal of boba, but it embodies the intricate story of Taiwan’s blessed geography, beverage culture, and economic development.

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