Bubble tea (boba tea) is a popular Taiwanese treat available in countless flavors and variations. Bubble tea cafés can offer a dizzying number of menu items with plenty of customization, leaving your head spinning. Whether you're making bubble tea at home or ordering it at a tea shop, start with some basic knowledge about this tasty, chewy beverage and the many flavors and textures available.
What Is Bubble Tea?
Bubble tea (also known as boba tea, pearl tea, and tapioca tea) is a style of tea drink that was created in Taiwan in the 1980s. Extremely popular in its home country, it's now popular all over the world as well.
Basic bubble tea includes four elements: brewed tea, milk or non-dairy milk (sometimes skipped), flavor and/or sweetener, and tapioca pearls or similar boba. The mixture is typically shaken with ice and serve with a big fat straw.
Types of Bubble Tea
Bubble tea, with its many permutations, can take on any flavor you like. Tea houses often offer hundreds of variations. Some classic types of bubble tea that can be found on every tea house menu include:
- Milk Tea: A refreshing combination of brewed black tea, milk, and (optional) tapioca pearls
- Thai Tea: A strong black tea combined with sweetened condensed milk and studded with (optional) tapioca pearls
- Taro Bubble Tea: Incorporates puréed taro, a purple root similar to sweet potato that has a toasty, sweet flavor
- Fruit Tea: A fresh fruit-based tea with your choice of boba that is often caffeine-free
Types of Tea in Bubble Tea
When ordering bubble tea, the first thing to consider is the type of tea to include. Most bubble teas are made with black tea, green tea, or oolong tea.
- Black Tea (known as red tea in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan): By far the most popular option for bubble tea (including Earl Grey)
- Green Tea: Especially jasmine green tea and green tea powders such as matcha
- Oolong Tea: Standard oolong tea is a popular option, though green oolong is another favorite for many bubble tea drinkers
- White Tea: Relatively popular option in some Western countries, white tea is rarely used for bubble tea in Taiwan
As bubble tea has grown, new concoctions that don't include tea at all have become popular as well. Newer variations include "Snow Ice" (a sort of powdered-coffee-based, frozen-and-blended drink), cream-based drinks, and fruit bubble tea.
Types of Milk in Bubble Tea
Milk and milk-like ingredients are often added to give bubble tea a creamy texture and flavor. Different flavors and styles of dairy and dairy-like ingredients may be used.
- Non-dairy creamer (by far the most popular "milk" used)
- Fresh milk
- Sweetened condensed milk
- Coconut milk
- Soy milk (freshly made or pre-made)
- Lactose-free milk
- Calpis and similar yogurt-like drinks
Some of the tart fruit-flavored bubble teas are only available without milk because the acidity of the fruit syrup can curdle the milk.
Flavors of Bubble Tea
While all of the other ingredients form the base for bubble tea (tea, milk, and boba), the true flavor comes from the flavoring ingredient such as a syrup or powder. Just as coffee houses will have a line up of syrup bottles to flavor lattes, bubble tea shops are stocked with a great variety of syrups and powders.
Flavored simple syrups are the more popular flavoring option because they mix easily into the cold milk tea. Some popular fruity options include:
- Passion Fruit
- Green Apple
For a less fruity flavor, try these popular options:
- Pudding (e.g., chocolate, custard, mango, or taro)
Types of Bubbles and Other Additions
Originally, the "bubble" in the name "bubble tea" referred to the air bubbles formed by shaking up the tea and milk mixtures. However, it is now used to refer to the "pearls" or "boba" and other ingredients found in similar drinks. These drinks typically have what is called "QQ" in Taiwan and China.
QQ is a chewy texture that is adored in Chinese and Taiwanese cuisines. QQ foods don't have to be flavorful to be popular, and they usually aren't. The most common types of bubbles with the sought-after QQ qualities include:
- Tapioca Pearls: Small, round globules of boiled tapioca starch that provide a very chewy, almost gum-like texture and almost no flavor. They are typically purplish-black, though they can also be white or pastel in color. They are by far the most popular boba (often simply called boba) and can vary in size
- Jelly: Grass jelly is made from Chinese mesona, the chewy cubes have a lightly sweet, herbal flavor. Aloe jelly is similar but made from the aloe plant. Other jelly flavors like coconut are sometimes offered as well
- Taro Balls: Cooked and often purple in color, these sweet balls are made from the taro plant.
- Sweet Potato Balls: Chewy balls made using orange sweet potato
- Tapioca noodles: Usually made from white tapioca and shaped into thin, noodle-like strands that can be slurped up through a wide bubble tea straw
- Pudding: Thick, creamy custard puddings that can be added to your drink as a decadent treat. Pudding typically comes in different flavors, like taro or coffee
- Popping Boba: A take on the standard tapioca pearls that "pop" in your mouth for a burst of flavor. These can come in a range of flavor options
Other popular topping and mix-ins include:
- Fresh Fruit: Diced fresh fruit is popular in bubble tea, especially in fruit teas
- Red Bean: Sweet, creamy red beans
- Cookie Crumbs: Crumbled up Oreos or similar cookies
- Ice Cream: Some shops offer ice cream as a mix-in or topper for bubble tea
- Cheese Cream: A sweet, salty, and savory cream made with cheese powder