Boba cafes are popular hangout spots in many cities all over the U.S. It didn’t reach mainstream status in the states until the ’90s, its origins can actually be traced back to 1980s Taiwan. There are numerous variations of this sweet, milk tea-based beverage. They’re all easily recognized by the large, eye-candy colorful balls that float inside the drink.
Boba shops have now bloomed all over America and are no longer limited to the Taiwanese enclaves they once resided in 15 years ago. For those who haven’t had the chance to experience the magic that is boba, and finds themselves perplexed at the overwhelming menu full of customizable options, we are here to guide you.
(The name “boba” refers specifically to those delicious chewy little pearls.)
The beverage itself may be a tea or juice and is commonly referred to as boba tea, bubble tea, or pearl milk tea. Absolutely delicious!
If you’ve never tasted it, it’s best to start with a basic boba milk tea.
What Exactly Is Boba?
Though various boba drinks are available, the most common combination includes a tea base that’s combined with milk (yum!) or fruit and is usually prepared over a bed of sweet boba pearls. There are boba milk teas, green teas, black teas, smoothies, coffee drinks, and a slew of other preparations that can be enhanced with rich flavors that range from sweet to savory. Milk tea is usually prepared with powdered creamers, although fresh milk is used in some recipes.
It’s All in the Tapioca
The boba pearls give the drink its unique taste and texture. Though the pearls may be large or small, the large pearls are most common in U.S.-based boba cafés.
The tapioca comes from cassava root and is a type of root vegetable from South America that is also referred to as yuca. These pearls are completely gluten-free and are commonly mixed with brown sugar for flavor, which is how they get their distinctive black coloring. The brown sugar helps with both the aesthetic and providing a healthier alternative to traditional sugar. The texture is consistent to gummy bears, and the flavor adapts to the drink’s flavor since the pearls absorb the liquid inside the cup.
A Brief History of Boba
Though there are a few conflicting stories, boba is most commonly believed to have originated in Tainan, Taiwan. By the early 1990s, boba was a sensation throughout East and Southeast Asia. In North America, it first became trendy in neighborhoods with predominantly Asian populations and gradually expanded into a widespread cultural phenomenon.
Originally, boba pearls were used in shaved ice desserts and paired with syrups, beans, and delectably chewy rice balls. The milk tea was also consumed regularly and thankfully, someone decided to merge the two, thus creating the genius, beloved drink we now have today.
Boba culture made its way to America through Taiwanese neighborhoods and blossomed near college campuses and high schools, where students would gather for study groups. Most boba shops, even now, are open late and offer affordable snacks and drinks — which made them the perfect stop for late-night hangouts and crunchtime studying. Glucose helps the brain with studying, so it really makes perfect sense.
Is Boba Healthy?
As with most coffee and tea drinks, the nutritional value will depend on how you prepare it. Many boba drinks are high in sugar, carbs, and calories. If you’re concerned about your waistline or blood sugar, you’ll definitely want to order a small serving or save this treat for a special day. Just bear in mind that even a 16-ounce green tea boba can pack more than 50 grams of carbs, 40 grams of sugar, and about 240 calories. Sounds a lot, yes but even I can’t resist myself when I see someone else holding an eye-catching milk tea.
While boba may not be the healthiest drink you can choose, it’s certainly delicious and worth the occasional splurge.
The tea base for boba drinks is usually black or green tea and can be customized with an array of syrups like peach, passionfruit, and lychee. Milk can also be added to teas, transforming them to milk teas, and making for a much creamier, indulgent drink. The classic “boba milk tea” order is a black tea with milk and boba.
Some drinks, however, stray away from the conventional green and black tea base.
Taro milk tea, another popular choice, is made from the tropical taro root.
Refreshing fruit teas, often with fresh fruit slices mixed right in, are usually available and often caffeine-free.
Bright orange Thai tea also makes an appearance on most boba menus, and coffee milk tea is a choice for coffee enthusiasts who want the best of both worlds. Especially when you love strongly flavored beverages. There are also oolong, matcha, and white teas to pick from.
Beyond teas, most boba shops also have slushies and milk drinks available too. Slushies are typically made from tea and syrups that are thrown in a blender and blended with ice, resulting in a sweet and icy treat. Best paired with fruits!
Milk drinks have milk as a base and are usually sweetened with honey or brown sugar syrup. A beverage that would not sit well for the lactose intolerant.
That being said, there are many boba shops offer milk alternatives — like soy, almond, and lactose-free milk — which nicely accommodates the “30 million to 50 million Americans who are lactose intolerant.”
Half the fun of going out for a boba, which is both a beverage and a snack rolled in one, is customizing it perfectly to your tastes. Almost all boba shops give you the option to adjust the sweetness of your drink. Change how much ice you want, and even have hot and cold options (for when you need your boba fix but it’s freezing outside). It’s best to adjust your sugar level to your tastes and preferences.
Personally, I love to get 0% sugar once in a while. It really brings out the taste of the bobas!
Toppings (maybe the most important part)
This is the most important topping at any tea parlor. Once these balls of cassava root are rolled into bite-size bunches, they’re boiled and flavored, often with brown sugar or honey. The result is a subtly sweet, chewy addition to your drink that makes your milk tea fun!
First-timers, I’d definitely recommend going classic and adding boba to your drink.
This is not to be confused with snack pack-style pudding. Pudding at boba shops are custard-like in flavor — made from egg yolks, cream, and sugar — but firmer due to the addition of gelatin. The closest thing I could compare it to is a very soft flan.
They have the slightest chew and pair really nicely with creamier, more indulgent milk teas. Sometimes, boba shops will also have flavored puddings, like taro or mango pudding. Customize your drink to your preference, or even add pudding on top of boba for different textures!
Don’t worry — it tastes nothing like grass (nor is it made from grass). The treat is made from Chinese mesona, a plant that is part of the mint family. The jelly is usually steeped in brown sugar for a slightly sweet, herbaceous taste. Grass jelly comes cut in cubes and texturally is firmer than pudding.
I’d recommend pairing grass jelly with any milk tea, as it makes the perfect substitute for boba if you’re feeling experimental. It also goes well with coffee-based drinks. Personally, this is my favorite as it makes me feel a small bit healthier. (Yes, grass jelly is usually consumed in the east to promote health!)
Aloe vera is rich in antioxidants and said to be beneficial for your skin! These clear, cubed jellies are soaked in syrup and taste refreshing and sweet. Because the flavor is a bit subdued, aloe vera jelly goes nicely with bolder, tropical flavors. It goes so well with citrus fruit teas, so do give it a try!
Sago tastes like tapioca pudding without any of the pudding. The texture is chewy and spongy, but with much more give than a tapioca pearl. These delicate, mini pearls make appearances in many traditional Asian desserts. What’s more. it pairs nicely with coconut, red bean, and matcha flavors. I suggest swapping them in for boba if you don’t want to chew your drink as much.
Taro balls have a more gentle melt-in-your-mouth feel to them. These add-ons are made from taro, mashed with sweet potato flour and water to form misshapen spheres of deliciousness. In Taiwan, taro balls are often eaten in a bowl as a dessert, both iced and hot. Add it to your taro milk tea, or pair it with oolong milk tea for a dessert-drink hybrid.
If you think beans don’t belong in desserts or drinks, you are missing out on an opportunity to get more fiber. Red bean (also commonly known as the azuki bean) is prepared by boiling the legume in sugar, resulting in a fragrant, soft mixture.
Traditionally, red bean complements matcha, so I’d recommend having it in a matcha milk tea for a delectable, earthy drink.
Whipped foam toppings are a recent development in the world of boba milk teas. Ranging from tiramisu crema to sea salt cream, these thick, glossy foams are gently layered on top of teas and sipped on delicately. There’s even “cheese tea,” which is whipped cheese powder or cream cheese that provides a salty balance to the syrupy sweet teas of boba shops. The texture is similar to a fluffy mousse and provides an adorable foam mustache when enjoyed correctly.
How it is served?
When your boba drink is ordered — customized with ice levels, sweetness, and toppings galore — your creation typically goes through a special sealing machine. Boba straws are larger than typical straws to accommodate the chunks of tapioca, fruit chunks you have in your beverage. It comes with a pointed tip to pierce through the sealed top of your drink. Just make sure you have your thumb pressed firmly over the top hole of your straw before you drive it through the film of plastic covering your drink. Or else your drink will explode everywhere. These days, there are even metal and glass boba straws available for purchase. This reduces the plastic footprint and saves the earth one step at a time.
Some boba shops have shorter, stouter cups filled with their sweet milk-tea nectars — like Half & Half and Honeyboba. Other shops skip the sealing machine and serve their drinks with plastic tops similar to those of drinks at Starbucks. Hot drinks usually come in your typical to-go coffee cups, with an attached spoon if your hot beverage contains toppings.
Regardless of what container your beverage arrives in, the next best thing at boba shops are the snacks. Boba shops usually serve up traditional Taiwanese snacks. Examples include salty and spicy Taiwanese popcorn chicken, spiced french fries, minced pork with rice, and tea eggs. Larger boba shops may have expanded menus and additional seating. It’ll change your boba outing from a snack run to a proper meal. At those locations, it’s unsurprising for the shops to have a Taiwanese pork chop, noodles, and dumplings on the menu, with condensed milk-glazed brick toasts for dessert.
What’s the cost?
Boba milk teas will generally set you back a couple of dollars, depending on where you go for your drink. Some of the larger, more established chains — like Lollicup and Quickly — tend to be on the cheaper side. With drinks ranging from $3-$5, depending on what kind of toppings you get. Toppings usually cost an additional 50 cents per topping, but they also range from place to place.
Tea shops that have a stronger focus on fresh ingredients and organic options, like Boba Guys and 7leaves, may have slightly higher price points. But in those cases, you’re paying for quali(tea).