Permission to Play With Your Food
What's That? | Boba Tea
Ever spy someone sipping on a massive straw in a clear plastic cup filled with a milky or colorful liquid and dark, marble-sized spheres? In a world of to-go coffee cups and water bottles, this may all look downright strange, but it’s practically the national drink in Taiwan. And there’s a good reason for that: boba tea is delicious and fun.
Do not be intimidated! Below we’ll explain what it is, why you should try it, where it came from, how to know if it’s any good, and where to find it.
WHAT IS BOBA TEA?
Boba (“boh-bah”) tea features three elements:
The beverage itself is an Asian tea (black, jasmine, oolong or green) cut with a generous amount of milk, some sugar and an optional fruit flavor, such as passionfruit or strawberry. The tea is usually served cold, but you can order it hot as well.
The spheres on the bottom of the cup are tapioca pearls (naturally gluten-free) and have a soft and chewy texture.
The clear cup with a giant straw. The half-inch diameter helps with sipping up the pearls.
WHY YOU SHOULD TRY IT
The magic is all about sipping up the little beads of chewy pearls. Everybody standing in line for it know that boba tea is surprisingly entertaining — which is not an adjective that I associate with beverages. The oversized straw, the gummy pearls, the concept of chewing on a drink — it’s permission to play with your food. Unleash your inner 5-year-old!
Chilled milk tea was invented in Taiwan as an after school treat for studious kids. The addition of tapioca pearls came in 1988 as a result of boredom. During a staff meeting, Lin Hsiu Hui, a product development manager for the Chun Shui Tang teahouse, poured her tapioca dessert into her Assam iced tea and took a sip. Heads turned, a marketing campaign spun, and within days, boba tea came to represent 80-90% of the teahouse’s sales, according to Ms. Lin.
After sweeping through Taiwan, boba tea made its way to Hong Kong, China, Japan and Korea. It wasn’t until the late ‘90s when boba tea arrived in the United States. It landed first in Asian neighborhoods on the west coast and then it made its way east. By 2001, culinary analysts named boba tea an official trend to watch.
Boba tea has a number of nicknames: bubble tea, pearl tea, boba ice tea, pearl ice tea, pearl milk tea, boba nai cha, and zhen zhou nai cha. The “bubbles” in “bubble tea” refer to both the tapioca pearls on the bottom and the foam bubbles that form on the top.
HOW TO APPRECIATE
In addition to the whole drinking experience, there is a lot to appreciate in the tapioca texture. To reach the gummy bear-consistency, there needs to be precision in the kitchen. The raw tapioca pellets are solid, pea-sized spheres. After they are thrown into a pot of boiling water, timers are set for the durations they have to boil, rest in hot water, and then sit out. Too short and the pearls end up firm and dense. Too long and they disintegrate into mush. A good pearl should handle 1-3 chews before it structurally breaks apart.
You know you have a good cup of Boba tea if:
The cup is 25-30% filled with pearls
The tapioca pearls have a uniform, soft, gummy consistency
Pearls can glide up the straw with minimal effort
The milk tea is rich and creamy without being overly sweet
The cup is filled no more than 20% with ice
HOW TO ORDER IT
It might seem a little intimidating to pull up to a Boba Tea shop, with a long line and an endless number of menu options. For your first experience, ignore the customizable flavors and additions and go with the “original”:
Tea: classic milk tea
Tapioca pearls: yes please
WHERE TO FIND BOBA ON SIDEWALK
There is something satisfying about indulging in a delicious beverage while outside. With the weather getting warmer, sip on some boba while on a neighborhood walk. There are currently three Sidewalks that feature boba tea!
What’s That? is a series that celebrates experiencing the different and familiar, whether it is an object, food, custom, artistic style or type of architecture. In each edition, we introduce an item and explain how to appreciate it and why it’s important. Why? Because, being cultured is cool. Ideas or requests? Let us know on our Facebook Page or in the comments section below.