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What Is Boba Tea, and Can I Make It at Home? (Absolutely!)

A treat with texture.

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Iced tea is delicious. Chewy, gummy treats are delicious. Iced tea combined with a chewy, gummy treat? You guessed it: delicious. If you want a snack and a drink in one convenient package, boba tea might be the treat for you. You may have seen boba tea shops in your area and wondered what this wildly popular beverage is all about. To learn more about the sweet, creamy tea drink filled with pleasantly chewy little spheres — and find out how you can have it at home — keep reading.

What Is Boba Tea? 

Boba tea, also called bubble tea, tapioca tea, or pearl tea, originated in a tea house in Taiwan in the ’80s, says food blog Pickled Plum. Employee Lin Hsi Hsi was eating a tapioca dessert and drinking tea when she decided to mix them together. It became her regular treat, and quickly gained popularity among other staff members. When the shop owner saw how much everyone enjoyed it, he added the drink to the menu, and it became a hit, eventually becoming popular worldwide. 

Traditionally, boba tea consists of sweetened, milky iced black tea with small chewy balls of tapioca (like larger versions of the kind found in tapioca pudding) at the bottom of the cup that can be slurped up with a straw. Most people add a flavor syrup or powder to their base tea. There are many available variations and toppings, but Pickled Plum lists out the most common ingredients below.

Tea flavors: Jasmine, oolong, white, green, or earl grey 

Milk: Dairy or non-dairy, including sweet condensed milk 

Flavored powders or syrups: Peach, mango, kiwi, rose, lychee, pineapple, caramel, or taro (a sweet, tropical purple root native to Southeast Asia, and my personal favorite!)

Popular mix-ins: Tapioca pearls, tapioca noodles (the same as pearls, but in strands instead of sphere shapes), fresh fruit, jellies (aloe vera jelly or Chinese grass jelly), or popping boba, which are juice-filled balls made from seaweed extract that explode when bitten. Whereas regular tapioca boba are relatively flavorless, popping boba come in fruit flavors like strawberry, mango, and lychee.

Can You Make Boba Tea At Home?

Absolutely. There are several places to buy boba ingredients, both online and in specialty grocery stores. If you’ve never tried it before, though, I recommend starting with a fresh-made boba tea from a boba shop, so you can familiarize yourself with its flavors and textures before attempting to recreate them on your own. 

How To Make Boba Tea

To make boba tea at home, you’ll need boba (of course). To quick start your recipe, buy boba pearls that are ready to eat in five minutes online (Buy from Amazon, $5.22). When it comes to flavorings, there are two options: use ready made flavor powders (Buy from Amazon, $17.99 for pack for 4), or make your tea as a base and forego additional flavorings. Check out this recipe from Lisa Lin, creator of food blog Healthy Nibbles and Bits

Homemade Bubble Tea

Prep time: 2 hours
Cook time: 10 minutes

Ingredients (Makes 4 drinks):

  • 8 bags black tea or 3 tablespoons loose-leaf black tea
  • 4 cups hot water
  • ¾ cup quick-cooking tapioca pearls
  • Whole milk (or milk of choice) to serve
  • Simple syrup (or choice of sweetener) to serve

For the simple syrup: 

  • ½ cup water
  • ½ cup sugar

Directions: 

  1. Steep tea in 4 cups freshly boiled water, let cool completely.
  2. If using simple syrup, stir water and sugar, heat on medium-high until sugar dissolves; remove from heat and let cool completely.
  3. Boil tapioca pearls in 4 cups water, stirring until they float to water’s surface, then cook another 5 minutes. (Test for desired softness and continue cooking if not sufficiently tender.)
  4. Remove pearls with slotted spoon, rinse, transfer to bowl, and mix with a few tablespoons simple syrup.
  5. Divide cooked tapioca pearls, tea, and ice among glasses.
  6. Stir in 1 ½ tablespoons milk and 1 ½ tablespoons simple syrup, adjusting to taste.

Don’t forget the jumbo-sized straw for maximum boba retrieval (Buy from Amazon, $9.99 for 100). If you don’t have a large enough straw, Lin suggests using a spoon to eat the boba out of your cup. She also advises — for those who don’t serve the pearls immediately after boiling them — leaving them in their hot water (instead of draining them). The hot water will help keep them soft. 

I don’t know about you, but I could definitely go for some boba right about now. Whether you go buy some from a tea shop or try your hand at making it yourself, I hope you enjoy.

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