The history of boba in the US

If you enjoy sipping boba tea, you have the Taiwanese to thank for bringing this delicious drink to the shores of the United States.

Tonie Huang emigrated from Taiwan as a young girl. 

Memories of her childhood are everywhere in her boba shop, Cha Bei Bei, in Monrovia.

"I was brought up drinking really good tea," Huang says. "And when I came to the States, I thought, ‘oh my God, that tastes nothing like the tea I was used to in Taiwan.’"

From sourcing her own teas to making by hand her boba balls, Cha Bei Bei is a labor-intensive labor of love.

"The original way of doing it was with potato flour, sweet potato. This is tapioca flour, which is cassava flour," Huang explains as she shows us how she makes the chewy pearls. 

A new exhibit at the Chinese American Museum traces the story of boba from the Americas, where cassava was first harvested and used, to Africa where it was baked into bread and then on to Asia.

"What we know as boba, the most popular form of cassava or yucca, it is processed and put into sweet desserts," says Dr. Juliy Phun, a professor of Asian American studies at California State University, Los Angeles and a curator of the exhibit.

Phun gave us a private tour of the exhibit, which features not only the history but also the joy that boba brings to many people.

"We have the giant boba girl by Chrisselle, who is a local artist here in LA," Phun points out.

The process of making small-batch boba starts with the cassava flour and sometimes a mix in like ube to give it color.  

Huang hand mixes with boiling water, then mixes again in a stand mixer.  

She then, kneads the dough, rolls it out, eventually feeding the dough into a machine that cuts it into small balls. The balls are then boiled until they float and become soft and chewy.

The hard part for the customer may be choosing how the boba is consumed.  

A wide straw means every sip to your mouth is full of boba.

"It’s so fun because you’re drinking something and you’re also eating something at the same time. 

Boba tea has become a global phenomenon, with different variations and flavors around the world. 

But for many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, it’s also a way to connect with their culture and heritage.

If you’re curious about the word boba, it's actually a Mandarin word, but in early usage was a nod to a popular Taiwanese actress who had prominent female features.  

"I think it was a word we once giggled over, but language changes, and boba is now boba." Phun said.

There are boba shops all over Southern California, but if you want to experience Huang’s, try to get to Cha Bei Bei in Monrovia before she needs to close forever on May 21.

The boba exhibit at the Chinese American Museum runs until January 2024.