Food & Drink

Everything You Ever Needed to Know About Boba

From taro milk tea to blended slushies with pudding, we've got you covered.

As someone who grew up in what might very well be the boba capital of America -- the San Gabriel Valley -- milk tea courses through my veins. Weekly trips to get boba turned into semi-weekly, then, daily. High school study group sessions took place at boba shops, with Taiwanese-style popcorn chicken and jasmine green tea providing sustenance. Debates over which place has the best, chewiest boba continue to rage, and when the New York Times infamously described boba as “the blobs in your tea,” boba enthusiasts across America collectively rolled our eyes.

Boba shops have now bloomed all over America and are no longer limited to the Taiwanese enclaves they once resided in 15 years ago. For those who haven’t had the chance to experience the magic that is boba, and find themselves staring -- perplexed -- at the overwhelming menu full of customizable options, we are here to guide you.

What is boba?

The short answer: they’re cassava starch balls.

The longer answer: the term boba can, holistically, be in reference to the entire drink-plus-toppings, the most popular topping being tapioca pearls (which also happen to be called boba -- I know, it’s confusing, but stay with me!). The drink as a whole is also known as bubble tea, pearl tea, and tapioca tea -- depending on what part of the country you’re from. As stated earlier, the tapioca pearls that are also called “boba” are generally made from cassava starch, a root vegetable from South America that is also referred to as yuca.

Boba -- the drink in its entirety -- originates from Taiwan, though its disputed which city and specific shop it actually started from. Originally, boba pearls were used in shaved ice desserts and paired with syrups, beans, and delectably chewy rice balls. Milk tea was also consumed regularly and thankfully, someone decided to merge the two, thus creating the genius, beloved drink we now have today.

Boba culture made its way to America through Taiwanese neighborhoods and blossomed near 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 made them the perfect stop for late-night hang outs and crunchtime studying.

Bases

The tea base for boba drinks is usually black or green tea and can be customized with an array of syrups like peach, strawberry, and lychee. Milk can also be added to teas, transforming them to milk teas, and making for a much creamier, indulgent drink. The classic “boba milk tea” order is a black tea with milk and boba.

Some drinks, however, stray away from the conventional green and black tea base. Taro milk tea, another popular choice, is made from the tropical taro root. Refreshing fruit teas, often with fresh fruit slices mixed right in, are usually available and often caffeine-free. Bright orange Thai tea also makes an appearance on most boba menus, and coffee milk tea is a choice for coffee enthusiasts who want the best of both worlds. There are also oolong, matcha, and white teas to pick from.

Beyond teas, most boba shops also have slushies and milk drinks available too. Slushies are typically made from tea and syrups that are thrown in a blender with crushed ice, resulting in a sweet and frosty treat. Milk drinks have milk as a base and are usually sweetened with honey or brown sugar syrup -- a beverage that would not sit well for the lactose intolerant.

That being said, lots of boba shops offer milk alternatives -- like soy, almond, and lactose-free milk -- which nicely accommodates the “30 million to 50 million Americans [who] are lactose intolerant.

Half the fun of going out for a boba, which is both a beverage and a snack rolled in one, is customizing it perfectly to your tastes. Almost all boba shops give you the option to adjust the sweetness of your drink, change how much ice you want, and even have hot and cold options (for when you need your boba fix but it’s freezing outside).

Toppings (maybe the most important part)

Boba
This is the quintessential topping at any tea parlor. Once these balls of cassava root are rolled into bite size bunches, they’re boiled and flavored, often with brown sugar or honey. The result is a subtly sweet, chewy addition to your drink that increases the fun of having a milk tea tenfold. If you’re trying milk tea for the first time, I’d definitely recommend going classic and adding boba to your drink.

Pudding
This is not to be confused with snack pack-style pudding. Pudding at boba shops are custard-like in flavor -- made from egg yolks, cream, and sugar -- but firmer due to the addition of gelatin. The closest thing I could compare it to is a very soft flan. They have the slightest chew and pair really nicely with creamier, more indulgent milk teas. Sometimes, boba shops will also have flavored puddings, like taro or mango pudding. Customize your drink to your preference, or even add pudding on top of boba for different textures!

Grass jelly
Don’t worry -- it tastes nothing like grass (nor is it made from grass). The treat is made from Chinese mesona, a plant that is part of the mint family. The jelly is usually steeped in brown sugar for a slightly sweet, herbaceous taste. Grass jelly comes cut in cubes and texturally is firmer than pudding. I’d recommend pairing grass jelly with any milk tea, as it makes the perfect substitute for boba if you’re feeling experimental. It also goes well with coffee-based drinks.

Aloe Vera
Aloe vera is rich in antioxidants and said to be beneficial for your skin, so why not add it to your drink order? These clear, cubed jellies are soaked in a syrup and taste refreshing and sweet. Because the flavor is a bit subdued, aloe vera jelly goes nicely with bolder, tropical flavors. I’d recommend adding it to citrus drinks, like an orange or passion fruit green tea.

Sago/tapioca
Sago tastes like tapioca pudding without any of the pudding. The texture is chewy and spongy, but with much more give than a tapioca pearl. These delicate, mini pearls makes appearances in many traditional Asian desserts, and pairs nicely with coconut, red bean, and matcha flavors. I suggest swapping them in for boba if you don’t want to chew your drink as much.

Taro balls
Unlike boba pearls, which have a springy texture that bounces back mid-chew, taro balls have a more gentle melt-in-your-mouth feel to them. These add-ons are made from -- you guessed it -- taro, mashed with sweet potato flour and water to form misshapen spheres of deliciousness. In Taiwan, taro balls are often eaten in a bowl as a dessert, both iced and hot. Add it to your taro milk tea for a double dose of taro, or pair it with oolong milk tea for a dessert-drink hybrid.

Red bean
If you think beans don’t belong in desserts or drinks, you are missing out on a delicious opportunity to get more fiber in your diet. Red bean (also commonly known as the azuki bean) is prepared by boiling the legume in sugar, resulting in a fragrant, soft mixture. Traditionally, red bean complements matcha, so I’d recommend having it in a matcha milk tea for an earthy drink.

Whipped foam/cream
Whipped foam toppings are a recent development in the world of boba milk teas. Ranging from tiramisu crema, to sea salt cream, these thick, glossy foams are gently layered on top of teas and sipped on delicately. There’s even “cheese tea,” which is whipped cheese powder or cream cheese that provides a salty balance to the syrupy sweet teas of boba shops. The texture is similar to a fluffy mousse and provides an awesome foam mustache when enjoyed correctly.

How it is served?

When your boba drink is ordered -- customized with ice levels, sweetness, and toppings galore -- your creation typically goes through a special sealing machine. Boba straws are larger than typical straws to accommodate the chunks of tapioca, fruit chunks, or whatever else you have in your beverage, and come with a pointed tip to pierce through the sealed top of your drink (just make sure you have your thumb pressed firmly over the top hole of your straw before you drive it through the film of plastic covering your drink, or else your drink will explode everywhere).These days, there are even metal and glass boba straws available for purchase to reduce the need for single-use plastic boba straws.

Some boba shops have shorter, stouter cups filled with their sweet milk-tea nectars -- like Half & Half and Honeyboba. Other shops skip the sealing machine and serve their drinks with plastic tops similar to those of drinks at Starbucks. Hot drinks usually come in your typical to-go coffee cups, with an attached spoon if your hot beverage contains toppings.

Regardless of what container your beverage arrives in, the next best thing at boba shops are the snacks. Boba shops usually serve up traditional Taiwanese snacks, which includes salty and spicy Taiwanese popcorn chicken, spiced french fries, minced pork with rice, and tea eggs. Larger boba shops may have expanded menus and additional seating that can change your boba outing from a snack run to a proper meal. At those locations, it’s unsurprising for the shops to have Taiwanese pork chop, noodles, and dumplings on the menu, with condensed milk-glazed brick toasts for dessert.

What’s the cost?

Boba milk teas will generally set you back a couple of dollars, depending on where you go for your drink. Some of the larger, more established chains -- like Lollicup and Quickly -- tend to be on the cheaper side, with drinks ranging from $3-$5, depending on what kind of toppings you get. Toppings usually cost an additional 50 cents per topping, but they also range from place to place.

Tea shops that have a stronger focus on fresh ingredients and organic options, like Boba Guys and 7leaves, may have slightly higher price points -- but in those cases you’re paying for quali(tea).

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Kat Thompson is a staff food writer at Thrillist and a boba connoisseur. Her go-to order is jasmine green milk tea with honey boba. Tweet her your favorite combination @katthompsonn.