What Is Boba Tea and How Do I Make It?
Boba tea, aka bubble tea, is a unique blend of tea, milk, sugar and chewy tapioca pearls that is refreshing and satisfying. Born in Taiwan, the beverage has gone on to find fans around the world and now comes in hundreds of flavors and styles. Here's everything you should know about what boba tea is, what it is made of and even how to make it yourself.
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What Is Boba Tea?
Boba tea is made of tea, milk, water, sugar and tapioca pearls. Iced sweet milky tea is given a good cocktail-style shake, after which tapioca pearls are added. Typical versions use black, green or oolong tea, although recently more flavors and types have appeared. These range from mocha to fruit-flavored milks with pearls that can be black, white or fruity. Most boba tea is sweet and milky, and the milk can vary from whole milk to nonfat, coconut to almond. Others, such as the fruit-infused versions, might not even contain tea or milk.
However, it is those tapioca pearls that are boba tea's defining characteristic. Nestled at the bottom of each glass, their chewy texture is what makes this unique beverage such a fan favorite. Made from cassava starch mixed with boiling water, the resulting dough is rolled and cut into balls and cooked again in either a brown sugar syrup to achieve the characteristic black color or a plain sugar syrup for white or other flavored pearls. This also gives the boba just a hint of sweetness.
Popping boba, on the other hand, are made either from agar-agar powder, a seaweed extract, or calcium compounds, fruit juice, water and a sweetener. These pearls burst with refreshing fruit juice when bitten and are a more recent addition that occurred with the advent of fruit-based boba teas.
Other additions can include grass, aloe or coffee jellies, taro or sweet potato balls, fresh fruit or red beans, among others.
Origins and History of Boba Tea
Sweet milky tea and tapioca pearls each have a long history in Taiwanese cuisine. The blend of tea and milk was perfected in 1949 when Chang Fan Shu, a former bartender, opened a tea shop. Using his mixology skills and a cocktail shaker, he created a perfect blend of tea and milk topped with a fine froth (the original bubbles in bubble tea) that customers loved.
Meanwhile, tapioca pearls were a popular dessert topping, especially on Taiwan's fruit- and fresh crème-smothered shaved ice extravaganzas. Made from cassava, a South American plant that came to Taiwan during Japanese rule from 1895 to 1945, the chewy pearls were favored for their colorful contrast.
The two, however, didn't meet until the 1980s. The exact origin story remains unclear, with some claiming Lin Hsiu Hui, product manager for Chun Shui Tang, a tea shop, tipped some pearls into her tea during a staff meeting, and others stating it was invented by Hanlin Tea Room. Regardless, once the combination was made, Taiwan's favorite beverage was born.
The term "boba" has a clear history, though. The bigger-than-usual black tapioca balls borrowed their moniker from a Chinese slang term which was also the nickname for Amy Yip, a Taiwanese movie actress and sex symbol of the same era, famed for her ample bosom.
Nutritional Value & Healthful Benefits
Made from cassava starch or a seaweed extract, the pearls are naturally gluten-free and vegan. Cassava is a good source of vitamin C, an antioxidant that can reduce inflammation and supports collagen production. It is also a source of fiber and vitamin B6, which helps with brain development and supports nervous system and immune system health.
While boba tea can be a high-calorie drink because of the milk and sugar, this can be balanced by switching to a fruit-based version or simply passing on the milk. A fruit base increases the vitamins, while a simple tea version also lets you enjoy the benefits of boba tea with less concern for calories. Many boba tea shops also allow customers to adjust the level of sweetness.
How to Make Boba Tea
Boba tea is simple to make, and with a bit of time, patience and practice you can tailor the recipe to your taste buds' preferences.
Steep your favorite tea in boiling water for five minutes for maximum flavor. You can also cold-brew the tea, letting it sit for upward of 12 hours in the refrigerator for a slightly less bitter and less caffeinated base. Blend it with your preferred milk to taste and add the syrup-cooked boba for a picture-perfect homemade boba tea.
Boba tea pearls can be purchased pre-made or can be handmade by mixing cassava starch with boiling water to form a dough to roll out and cut into balls. The tapioca pearls start out white but turn black when cooked in a brown sugar syrup. Some people add black food coloring, but a hearty brown sugar syrup should also do the trick.
Boba tea kits are another option, especially nice for beginners learning the steps to creating a unique brew without any guesswork.
Where Can I Buy Boba Tea?
These days, boba tea can be found in almost any city and its suburbs anywhere in the world. In the U.S. alone, there are nearly 3,400 shops, with the market only expected to grow.
Boba tea kits or the ingredients—tea, fruit juice, sugar, cassava starch (or tapioca pearls) and milk—are available in shops or online. Popping boba can also be ordered online or made at home with items purchased at specialty shops or online.
Boba tea is a refreshing beverage phenomenon full of sweetness and chewiness that comes in an endless variety of flavors and styles. Next time you head out for a coffee, try boba tea instead and see what delicious fun you can have. You might just discover your new favorite beverage.
Related: 6 Amazing Health Benefits of Tea