Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Boba
From taro milk tea to blended slushies with pudding, we've got you covered.
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As someone who grew up in what might very well be the boba capital of America -- the San Gabriel Valley -- milk tea courses through my veins. Weekly trips to get boba turned into semi-weekly, then, daily. High school study group sessions took place at boba shops, with Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken and jasmine green tea providing sustenance. Debates over which place has the best, chewiest boba continue to rage, and when the New York Times infamously described boba as “the blobs in your tea,” boba enthusiasts across America collectively rolled our eyes.
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 find themselves staring -- perplexed -- at the overwhelming menu full of customizable options, we are here to guide you.
What is boba?
The short answer: they’re cassava starch balls.
The longer answer: the term boba can, holistically, be in reference to the entire drink-plus-toppings, the most popular topping being tapioca pearls (which also happen to be called boba -- I know, it’s confusing, but stay with me!). The drink as a whole is also known as bubble tea, pearl tea, and tapioca tea -- depending on what part of the country you’re from. As stated earlier, the tapioca pearls that are also called “boba” are generally made from cassava starch, a root vegetable from South America that is also referred to as yuca.
Boba -- the drink in its entirety -- originates from Taiwan, though its disputed which city and specific shop it actually started from. Originally, boba pearls were used in shaved ice desserts and paired with syrups, beans, and delectably chewy rice balls. 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 hang outs and crunchtime studying.
The tea base for boba drinks is usually black or green tea and can be customized with an array of syrups like peach, strawberry, 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. 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 with crushed ice, resulting in a sweet and frosty treat. 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, lots of 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).