Though various boba drinks are available, the most common concoction includes a tea base that’s combined with milk or fruit and is usually prepared over a bed of sweet boba pearls. There are boba milk teas, green teas, black teas, smoothies, coffee drinks, and a slew of other preparations that can be enhanced with rich flavors that range from sweet to savory. Milk tea is usually prepared with powdered creamers, although fresh milk is used in some recipes.
If it’s one thing we can’t get enough of here in Malaysia, it’s bubble tea. Said to have been invented in Tainan and Taichung in the 1980s, bubble tea is a dessert drink originally made with Taiwanese black tea, milk, sugar syrup, topped with chewy tapioca pearls and consumed hot. These days though, bubble tea is more commonly served cold with a wide range of flavours.
What is boba?
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.These days, there are even metal and glass boba straws available for purchase to reduce the need for single-use plastic boba straws.
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 Coolblog and Tealive -- tend to be on the cheaper side, with drinks ranging from RM7 - RM 9 ( 2 USD ), depending on what kind of toppings you get. Toppings usually cost an additional RM3 ( 0.70 USD ) per topping, but they also range from place to place.
Is Boba Healthy?
As with most coffee and tea drinks, the nutritional value will depend on the preparation. Many boba drinks are high in sugar, carbs, and calories. If you’re concerned about your waistline or blood sugar, you’ll definitely want to order a small serving or save this treat for special occasions. Tapioca is devoid of beneficial nutrients on its own, but a quality green tea mixture should help you to circumvent some of the guilt. Just bear in mind that even a 16-ounce green tea boba can pack more than 50 grams of carbs, 40 grams of sugar, and about 240 calories.
While boba may not be the healthiest drink you can choose, it’s certainly delicious and worth the occasional splurge.