Boba Tea- A journey from East to West

Hi everyone!

It’s been a while since the last time I posted a new blog. I’ve been quite busy the last few weeks, as a graduate student as well as in the personal life. A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk at the 12th Planetary Crater Consortium which went great!! (Take that, my imposter syndrome xD !!) I received some great feedback and suggestions for my future work which I highly appreciate. πŸ˜€ I also finally finished all my TA duties for the term. It was a great learning experience, and to be honest, partly the reason I enjoyed TA-ing for this course so much was the amazing people I got to work with! I think we were quite a compatible bunch! πŸ™‚ Now, I’m looking forward to the next term haha! On the personal side of things, I’ve finally moved into a new house and gotten somewhat settled in here. I’m absolutely in love with the backyard/back-garden of the new house, but that’s a blog for another time haha! In terms of the whole moving experience, I naively underestimated the amount of stuff I’ve accumulated in these past five-six months that fall under the ‘personal belongings’ category haha! Which, did give me a bit of trouble, but we’re past all that now! Now, I’m looking forward to decorating my room with the things I like, put up some of my old art-works and buy some NEW PLANTS!! πŸ˜€ (Maa, if you’re reading this, this is NOT a competition for who buys more plants this month okay? lol)

Anyways, today’s blog is about something else. Last weekend I went to a mall with my housemate and we had some really delicious bubble tea there, which got me thinking about how it is made and where it comes from. I think I spent the rest of the Sunday browsing through the internet, wanting to learn more about this oh-so popular beverage! I guess the timing worked out great as it gave me an idea for today’s blog. So without further ado, let’s dive right into the reign of bubble tea!

What is Boba/bubble/pearl tea?

To put it simply, boba are cassava starch balls also known as tapioca balls that are extracted from a South American root vegetable, generally referred to as ‘Yuca‘. The word boba is apparently a slang word in Cantonese for ‘large breasts‘, referring to the spherical shape of the typical tapioca balls. They range in size from about 0.5 cm to 1 cm in diameter and are usually quite neutral in taste by themselves. They are also called ‘pearls‘ because of their appearance. In India, they’re largely known as sabudana. However they are extracted from a different plant, known as a tropical Sagu palm tree. from what I gathered, both these starch are interchangeable for many recipes.


The drink is thought to be originated in Taiwan, though it’s still debated which part of Taiwan to be precise. From all the information I could gather, there seems to be two rival Taiwanese tea-house chains claiming to be responsible for conceiving this drink! Another theory is that the chewy tapioca balls, also known as fenyuan in Chinese, somehow made their way to Taiwan from China, as a tribute presented to Empress Dowager Cixi. From then onwards, these pearls might have found their place in Taiwan’s famous night markets as snacks and eventually as a drink as we know today. Here is the article that speculates the origin of boba, if you are interested in finding out more.

Nowadays the word ‘Boba’ is largely used to describe the entire drink itself instead of just the topping! People often confuse bubble tea being synonymous with the Boba drink as we know today, but that wasn’t always the case. In the past, the word ‘bubble tea’ referred to a cold milk-tea which was shaken until the milk became frothy and would have bubbles at top (much like beer). The tapioca pearls on the other hand were widely used as toppings on desserts like shaved ice paired with various syrup, beans and chewy rice-balls in East Asia. In the late 80s however, someone decided to combine these elements with regular milk-tea to make one very delicious snack/drink. Thus, a typical boba (the drink) consists of a bottom layer of tapioca pearls, followed by a layer of shaved ice and filled with milk-tea the rest of the way to the top.

This drink became quickly popular in Taiwan, followed by most of East Asia as a delicious and filling snack, especially in the night markets. Boba culture made its way to North America through immigrating Taiwanese neighborhoods and became quite prominent around 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 make them the perfect stop for late-night hang outs and studying.

Bases and Toppings

The recipe of boba has evolved over time as it became more widespread throughout Taiwan and later the world. The shop owners started using various fruit powders and syrups, introducing fruit boba. The main reason for using these ingredients was that the actual fruits were quite expensive and went bad quickly. They also started experimenting with various toppings and even the milk in the milk tea.

Typically, a base for a boba drink is either black or green tea which can be customized using quite a wide range of syrups including strawberry and peach. Or one can instead add in milk, to make a creamier milk tea. When you order the classic ‘boba milk tea’, you would get a black tea with milk and boba. And even in classic boba, if you have a sweet tooth, you can ask the milk in the milk tea to be swapped out for a non-dairy creamer which gives the drink quite sweet and creamy taste. Nowadays, most of the boba shops offer quite a wide range of milk alternatives, such as soy, almond, oat milk or even lactose-free equivalents!

There’s much more to boba bases than just these conventional teas though! Another quite popular choice is the Taro milk tea, made from the tropical taro root. My favourite options are either a coffee milk tea (!?) or matcha milk tea, because I just can’t seem to stay away from that caffeine I guess! If you’re craving something caffeine-free however, then refreshing fruit teas with chewy chunks of fruits mixed in it are your savior haha!

Another important component of any decent boba is the toppings. The boba (cassava starch balls) are the quintessential topping at any boba shop. But other than that, there are still quite a lot of varieties of toppings out there. for example,

  • Grass jelly: A treat made from Chinese mesona, a mint like plant. Usually, the jelly is soaked into brown sugar for a slightly sweet taste.
  • Aloe Vera: Many shops offer these clear, cubed Aloe Vera jellies soaked in a syrup . Not only it pairs really well with citrus fruit teas like orange or passion fruit, but it is also rich in antioxidants and is said to be beneficial for your skin.
  • Taro balls: As mentioned before, these are also quite famous. Unlike typical boba pearls, their texture is slightly different. Instead of a springy, bouncing back mid-chew texture, these taro balls melt in your mouth as you eat them!
  • Red bean: This is something I’ve not tried before but apparently very delicious addition to your boba. They are said to complement matcha really well, so I’m quite curious to try this out next.
  • Whipped cream: Dare I say anymore? Though relatively a recent development in the world of Boba, whipped foam toppings give your drink a fluffy, mousse like texture and taste and also a foam mustache if you know how to drink it correctly πŸ˜‰

How to make boba at home?

After reading through quite a lot of information about the history of boba, as confusing and controversial as it may seem, I was curious about how to make it at home! My thinking was, if the process isn’t too complicated then I might give it a shot. Among all the recipes I looked at so far, this one looked the easiest. So here is a short, summarized version of the recipe. I would suggest looking at the original article for the detailed version with proper measurements.

So basically, to make bubble tea at home you would need some dried boba tapioca pearls (the non-quick cooking kind as per the recipe), tea of your choice, water, sugar and either milk or fruit juice of your choice depending on your preferences. The only cooking utensils you need to make this boba tea is a saucepan, a bowl and measuring cups. Pretty convenient isn’t it?

First off, start with bringing your water to a boil at high heat and then add in the tapioca pearls. Gently stir the mixture till the pearls start to float at the top of the water. We need to cook the boba for about 12 to 15 minutes and then set them aside for the same amount of time. Next prepare the simple syrup that we will pour over the pearls to give it a sweet taste. As the name suggests, it’s just boiling water and sugar mixed together until all the sugar is dissolved. Once both the pearls and the syrup are ready, just pour the sugar syrup over the pearls till they’re fully submerged and let it cool down. Now it’s time to prepare that cup of tea. You can use any tea you like, I would suggest making it a bit strong because the milk/fruit juice would make the flavour milder anyway. Now all that’s left is assembling the boba. Pour the prepared tea into a tall glass (for the aesthetics I guess? :D), add boba and lastly add in milk for a creamy bubble tea or some juice for a fruity tea. And there you have it, a homemade, delicious glass of bubble tea!

Have you ever tried Boba before? If so, what’s your favourite flavour? If not, I’d recommend at least giving it a shot πŸ™‚

And before I leave, I found this music video called ‘BobaLife’ by Fung Brothers ft. Kevin Lien, Priska & Aileen Xu and thought I’d share it with everyone, maybe you’ve heard this song before, maybe you haven’t! It’s quite an old song and the lyrics are…well interesting to say the least haha! πŸ˜€

Until next time!

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