As someone who grew up in the boba capital of America – the San Gabriel Valley – milk tea runs in my veins. The weekly trip to pick up boba became semi-weekly, then daily. High school study group meetings were held at the boba store, and refreshments were Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken and jasmine green tea. The debate over where to find the best and toughest boba rages on, and boba lovers across the U.S. collectively rolled their eyes when the New York Times infamously described boba as “a dab in tea.”
Boba stores are now thriving in the US, no longer confined to the Taiwanese enclave where they lived 15 years ago. For those of you who haven’t had a chance to experience the magic of Boba and are staring in amazement at an exciting menu full of customizable options, we’re here to guide you.
What is boba?
Short answer: they are balls made from tapioca starch.
Longer answer: The word boba can refer to the whole drink as a whole plus toppings, the most popular topping being tapioca pearls (also happens to be called boba – I know it’s confusing, but follow me!). The drink as a whole is also known as bubble tea, pearl tea and tapioca – depending on which country you’re from. As mentioned earlier, tapioca pearls, also known as “boba,” are usually made from tapioca starch, a South American root vegetable also known as yuca.
Boba – the drink in its entirety – originated in Taiwan, although it’s debatable which city and store it actually originated from. Originally, pearls were used in ice cream desserts and paired with syrup, beans, and deliciously chewy rice balls. Milk tea is also often consumed, and luckily someone decided to combine the two to create the ingenious, well-loved drink we have today.
Boba culture entered the United States through the Taiwanese community and flourished near college campuses and high schools where students gathered in study groups. Most Boba shops are still open late, offering affordable snacks and drinks, making it the perfect late-night stop for relaxation and study.
The tea base for boba beverages is usually black or green tea, and can be customized with a range of syrups such as peach, strawberry and lychee. Milk can also be added to teas to turn them into milk teas for a creamier, more pleasing drink. The classic “boba milk tea” order is black tea with milk and boba.
However, some drinks deviate from the traditional green and black tea base. Another popular taro milk tea is made from tropical taro. Refreshing fruit teas, usually freshly blended fruit slices, are usually available and are usually decaffeinated. Bright orange Thai teas also appear on most Boba menus, and coffee milk teas are an option for coffee lovers who want the best of both worlds. There are also oolong, matcha and white tea options.
Besides tea, most boba stores also sell slush and milk drinks. Slurry is usually made with tea and syrup, which is put into a blender with crushed ice to make a sweet and icy treat. Dairy products are milk-based and often sweetened with honey or brown sugar syrup – which may not be suitable for those who are lactose intolerant.
That said, many Boba stores offer dairy alternatives—such as soy, almond, lactose-free and even oat milk—to meet the needs of the “30 to 50 million lactose-intolerant Americans.”
Half the fun of going out for drinks and snacks boba is customizing it perfectly to suit your tastes. Almost all boba stores let you customize the sweetness of your drink, change the amount of ice you want, and even offer hot and cold options (when you need a boba fix but it’s cold outside).
Toppings (perhaps the most important part)
This is the essence of every tea room. Once rolled into bite-sized packets, these tapioca root balls are boiled and flavored, usually with brown sugar or honey. The result is a subtly sweet, chewy addition to your drink that makes milk tea ten times more fun. If this is your first time trying milk tea, I would definitely recommend the classic, add boba to your drink.
This should not be confused with snack bag pudding. The boba store pudding has a pudding-like taste – made with egg yolks, cream and sugar – but is firmer due to the addition of gelatin. The closest I can compare is a very soft flannel. They take a bite and pair well with creamier, tastier milk teas. Sometimes boba stores also have flavored puddings, such as taro or mango pudding. Customize your drink to your liking and even add custard to the boba for a different texture!
Fairy grass jelly
Don’t worry – it doesn’t taste like weed (nor is it made from). This treat is made from Chinese jelly, a plant belonging to the mint family. Jelly is usually dipped in brown sugar for a slightly sweet herbal flavor. The fairy grass jelly is cubed and firmer than pudding. I recommend grass jelly with any milk tea as it’s the perfect substitute for boba if you’re feeling adventurous. It also pairs well with coffee drinks.
Aloe vera is rich in antioxidants, which are said to be beneficial to the skin. So why not add it to your drink order? Dipped in syrup, these clear diced jellies taste refreshing and sweet. Since the flavor is a bit bland, the aloe vera jelly pairs well with stronger tropical flavors. I recommend adding it to citrus beverages like orange or passion fruit green tea.
Sago tasted like tapioca pudding without pudding. The texture is chewy and spongy, but much more than tapioca pearls. These delicate mini pearls appear in many traditional Asian desserts and pair perfectly with coconut, red bean and matcha flavours. If you don’t want to chew your drinks, I recommend switching them to Boba.
Unlike pearls, which have a bouncy texture that bounces when chewed, taro balls have a smoother melt-in-your-mouth feel. These additions include taro mashed with sweet potato or tapioca flour and water to form misshapen tasty balls. In Taiwan, taro balls are often eaten in bowls as dessert, both hot and cold. Add to your taro milk tea for a double dose of taro, or mix with oolong milk tea for a dessert drink mix.
If you think beans aren’t part of a dessert or drink, you’re missing out on a delicious opportunity to add more fiber to your diet. Red beans (also commonly called azuki beans) are made by boiling the beans in sugar, resulting in an aromatic, smooth mixture. Traditionally, red beans go well with matcha, so I recommend using red beans in matcha milk tea for an earthy drink.
The whipped cream topping is a new development in the world of boba milk tea. From tiramisu cream to sea salt cream, these thick, glossy mousses are lightly spread over tea and sipped gently. There’s even “cheese tea,” which is whipped cheese powder or cream cheese that adds a salty balance to the boba store’s syrupy sweet tea. The texture is similar to a fluffy mousse, and if used properly, makes for a great foam beard.
How is it served?
When your boba drink is ordered – with a personalised layer of ice, sweetness and toppings – your creation usually goes through a special sealing machine. Boba straws are larger than regular straws to hold tapioca chunks, fruit slices, or anything else in the drink, and they come with a sharp tip that can pierce the sealed top of the drink (just make sure you keep your thumb down). Tightly cover the top hole of the straw before threading it through the plastic wrap covering the drink or your drink will explode all over the place). Today, even metal and glass boba straws can be purchased to reduce the need for single-use plastic boba straws.
Some boba stores have shorter, sturdier cups filled with sweet milk teanectar. Other stores have ditched the cappers and served drinks with plastic lids, similar to those used by Starbucks. Hot drinks are usually served in a typical to-go coffee cup, with a spoon attached if your hot drink includes toppings.
No matter what packaging your drink comes in, the next best thing to do in a boba store is a snack. Boba shop usually serves traditional Taiwanese snacks, including salty and spicy Taiwanese popcorn chicken, spiced french fries, minced pork rice and kimchi. Larger boba stores may have expanded menus and extra seating that can turn your boba outing from a snack to a full meal. In these places, it’s no surprise that the store’s menu features Taiwanese pork chops, noodles, and dumplings, with condensed milk-glazed tile toast for dessert.
How much does it cost?
Boba milk tea usually costs a few dollars, depending on where you buy the drink. Some of the larger, more established chains, like Lollicup and Quickly, tend to be cheaper, with drinks ranging from $3 to $5 depending on the type of ingredients you get. Toppings usually cost an extra 50 cents per topping, but they also vary from place to place.
Tea shops like Boba Guys and 7leaves that focus more on fresh ingredients and organic options may be slightly more expensive – but in these cases, you’re paying for quality.