Bubble tea. Boba. Pearl milk tea. You’ve heard it, you’ve seen it, and you’ve probably also had it at this point. The obsession and popularity, however, is nothing new. Before it became a major trend with new shops popping up everywhere, bubble tea actually originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and made its way over to the U.S. sometime in the 90s.
While it’s easy to find a bubble tea shop around you now, what can be difficult is figuring out what the heck to order once you’re actually there. From milk teas to fruit teas to slushies, the possibilities are endless - not to mention all of the options for toppings and sugar and ice levels. Fear not, as this guide will take you through an explainer of what bubble tea is, what exactly the chewy balls are made of, and what you should order at a bubble tea shop to quench your thirst and hit that sweet spot.
The “Tea” in Bubble Tea
The most traditional bubble tea is also known as pearl milk tea. It consists of sweetened black tea, milk or creamer, and tapioca pearls. The tea and milk combination is shaken with ice through a cocktail shaker, both to cool down the drink by running it through ice and to give it a nice, foamy layer of bubbles. The “bubble” part of bubble tea doesn’t actually refer to the chewy tapioca pearls as most people assume but instead to that foamy layer!
Since the invention of the original pearl milk tea, many variations have been created. Start with tea—black tea, green tea, oolong tea, or matcha. You can enjoy the tea by itself, but there is the option to add milk or creamer to them to turn it into milk tea or tea lattes. Most places usually have cream powder, non-dairy creamer, non-lactaid milk, or regular whole milk. A creative way that many bubble tea shops also serve milk tea is through a cheese cap, milk foam, or macchiato, which entails a whipped, creamy foam, both sweet and savory, that is layered on top of the drink for you to sip both cream and tea together directly through the top (as opposed to sipping through a straw).
Another popular option is fruit teas. There are many fruity flavors that can be served in combination with a tea base, and some common favorites include mango, peach, and lychee. Lychee black tea and mango green tea are especially popular and a staple at many bubble tea shops. Some bubble tea places will also serve just fruit options by itself in the form of juices, slushies, or smoothies.
Interestingly enough, the toppings for bubble tea are add-ons that are always at the bottom of the drinks! The original topping in bubble tea is the chewy balls made of tapioca starch, brown sugar, and water. In fact, the drink is commonly known as “pearl milk tea” in Taiwan because the toppings look like little black pearls. The word “boba” is slang in Taiwanese that actually refers only to the round treats and has nothing to do with the rest of the drink. The tapioca pearls have a chewy, bouncy mouth feel lovingly referred to as “Q” in Taiwan as well, and that texture is one that the culture is obsessed with in dishes both savory and sweet.
In addition to tapioca pearls, there are other options that are equally as chewy, “Q”, and satisfying. Popular options include:
Coconut or lychee jelly, which are clear, jello-like cubes with a sweet, fruity flavor,
Aloe in small, round scoops that are both bouncy and refreshing,
Pudding that is creamy and melts in your mouth,
Herbal jelly, also known as grass jelly, which has an earthy taste and is a classic dessert option loved by virtually everyone in Taiwan,
Red bean that tastes sweet and creamy, and
Popping boba, a less traditional but equally fun topping that is filled with fruity syrups that pop when you bite on them - think gushers but in boba form.
One thing that all toppings have in common is that they’re consumed by using a straw with an extra wide opening that’s become a staple at any bubble tea shop.
Sugar and Ice and Everything Nice
If you haven’t figured it out yet, customization is a key feature of bubble tea. From the wide variety of options of teas and toppings, you can really put together a drink that suits your cravings at any given moment. But the choices don’t stop there! In addition to choosing your base and size, the sugar and ice levels of your drink are usually customizable as well with the exception of a few drinks with pre-made settings. Sugar level ranges from 0% no sugar to 25%, 50%, 75%, and 100% if you want the full sweet experience. The temperature of your drink can be perfected as well, ranging from hot to room temperature to ice levels of cold but no ice, less ice, or full ice.
So, what is the best drink?
Now that we know what’s available, how do we go about choosing the best drink?! The secret to choosing the perfect cup of bubble tea also depends on the weather and the mood you’re in.
If you’re looking for a solid cup of tea, milk teas are the way to go. My go-to order is:
Base: Black tea latte
I personally prefer milk tea made with fresh milk over creamer or powder because I like the taste of milk, although the creamer and powder will likely have a more fragrant flavor which some people prefer
Size: Large, of course
Sugar leve: 25% sugar
Ice level: Light
I prefer light ice on a summer day to cool down but not have the ice melt and dilute the drink, however a cup of hot milk tea when it's chilly outside is really the best
Note: tapioca, pudding, and herbal jelly all go really well with milk based teas
If you’re needing to quench your thirst or are looking for something refreshing, then fruity teas and slushies are the way to go. My fruity favorite is:
Base: Mango green tea or peach oolong tea
Size: Large, of course
Topping: Lychee jelly
Sugar level: 25% sugar
Some prefer more, but I've found that the syrup from the toppings usually add some more sweetness
Ice level: Light ice
Note: Coconut jelly, aloe, and popping bobas are also great topping options for fruit teas because they are also already fruity in nature
Either way, you can’t go wrong with this delicious treat, and I’m sure you will enjoy the sweet drink no matter the combination of tea and topping you end up with!
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