Boba 101: Everything you ever wanted to know about bubble tea

Boba (or bubble tea) has been a beloved treat for decades, originating in Taiwan.
/ Source: TODAY

It’s a drink that looks like it was made for Instagram with its pastel colors and pearls at the bottom, but boba (or bubble tea) has been a beloved treat for decades, originating in Taiwan.

Whether you’re already a fan of boba or have been wanting to give it a try, here’s everything you ever wanted to know about the drink.

What is boba or bubble tea?

d3sign / Getty Images

Boba is essentially a milk tea with tapioca balls, according to Andrew Chau and Bin Chen, authors of “The Boba Book: Bubble Tea and Beyond” and owners of Boba Guys which has locations in San Fransisco, Los Angeles and New York.

Traditionally treated as more of a dessert drink for teenagers because of its sweetness and “chewing” experience, the drink has taken on more forms like coffee drinks, fruit teas, smoothies and even cocktails as it gains popularity.

“In the last decade, boba has evolved more as a substitute for a smoothie or coffee,” Chau told TODAY Food.

He and Chen credit a growing appetite for global cuisine and flavors for its popularity.

Where did boba originate?

“Boba came from Taiwan, an island in Asia,” Chau said. “There's debate on the origin as two companies claim to invent it, Chun Shui Tang and Han Lin Tea Room. In either case, most agree it became popular in the 1980s and made its way over to America from Taiwanese immigrants.”

So, where’d the name come from? Funny story, Chau said. “It’s not PC to say now, but the word originally was slang for 'big breasts,'” he explained. Over time, the slang began to transform into loose language so anything that looked like big balls was called “boba.”

“When the drink emerged out of Taiwan, people started calling the drink ‘boba’ because of the large tapioca balls. By our generation, the connotation lost its meaning, so we just see the word ‘boba’ as the drink,” he said.

“We learned all about this from our moms who wondered why we called our company, 'The Boba Guys,'” he added. “We know it's not politically correct nowadays, but it's too late to change the name of our company or the entire industry.”

Oh, and “bubble tea” is just another name for the drink. “The bubbles are referring to the foam from shaking the milk tea. People usually think it's referring to the balls, but it's not,” Chau explained.

When and why did boba become popular in the U.S.?

Geri Lavrov / Getty Images

Patrick Yeh, founder of New York City-based Bar Pa Tea, said boba came to America in the '90s, but truly took off once social media got involved in the mid 2000s.

“Around 2011-2013, we started seeing a new wave of bubble tea shops opening across the countries with their own twists,” he said. In fact, Yeh’s shop gained huge social media popularity for one of its unique menu items, bubble tea ice cream. One night a video of the product went viral and generated over 6 million views on Instagram. “The next day we sold out an entire week’s worth of ice cream,” he said.

“Bubble tea shops have become the new Starbucks,” he added. “It has become a part of a social lifestyle for many. It helps bring customers together, from studying together to even bringing their first dates.”

Another thing he credits for boba’s popularity is that it’s also a versatile and highly customizable drink. “Customers can control the sugar level and what kind of tea and milk that go in it,” he said. “There’s something for everyone at a bubble tea shop, and that’s why it's so popular, even among the vegan and gluten free crowd, too.”

What are the ingredients in a classic boba recipe?

According to the Boba Guys, the ingredients for a classic boba recipe can be broken down into four parts: tapioca balls, tea (usually black tea), milk (they recommend half-and-half or oat milk) and a sweetener, like a syrup.

What are the balls made from?

Karl Tapales / Getty Images

The tapioca balls or “pearls,” as they’re called, are made from cassava root. “It’s grounded up into a starch to form a tapioca ball,” Chau explained.

If you’re DIYing your own drink, there are kits you can buy through both Boba Guys and Bar Pa Tea, which have the balls included, or you can buy bulk packs of tapioca balls from Taiwan online.

“One cup of raw boba balls serves four people,” Chau said.

What are popular boba tea variations?

You can find bubble tea in many different variations, from milk tea to fruit juice tea, according to Yeh. “People are becoming more health conscious and are looking for bubble teas that are made with more natural ingredients like using loose tea leaves, matcha powder and freshly squeezed fruit juice, such as our Matcha Lemonade Bubble Tea,” he said. “Lately, we’ve seen a growth in adding oat beverage as a milk substitution to bubble tea.”

Yeh said Bar Pa Tea’s most popular items include Matcha Latte Bubble Tea and Oolong Latte Bubble Tea, which consist of tea, milk, tapioca balls and brown sugar.

At Boba Guys, their most popular is the Strawberry Matcha Latte, which consists of strawberry puree, whole milk and matcha.