Boba, bubble tea, pearl milk tea—whatever you call it, one thing’s for sure: those sweet, springy little tapioca balls served in plastic cups of sugary milk tea are en vogue right now. Specialty tea houses like Boba Guys and T4 are serving up these fashionable and mouth-watering sweet treats all over, but did you know you can make your own customized versions at home too? Here, we’ll explore the history behind the soaring demand for boba, as well as give some tips on how to handcraft your own versions at home.
Where It All Began...
You may have noticed that the tapioca pearls in your tea are similar in texture to desserts like mochi or Turkish delight. That’s because the process and ingredients that go into preparing them are quite alike. Starches are dissolved in water and heated to create a gelatinous texture. Even before the tapioca tea frenzy, pearl-shaped desserts were popular for years throughout Southeast Asia, primarily featuring sago (the starch in palm hearts).
Palm-based pearls were eventually overshadowed in popularity, though. The cassava root, from which tapioca is derived, first arrived in Southeast Asia via South America during the Columbian exchange; tapioca soon became the preferred starch for making the desserts, as it was a cheaper alternative that created a product nearly indistinguishable from sago.
The tapioca pearls were a beloved childhood dessert of Lin Hsiu-hui, an employee at Chun Shui Tang tea house in Tainan, Taiwan, who reportedly added them to cups of iced milk tea to create the first incarnation of boba back in 1987. But another popular legend credits the beverage’s creation to the founder of another Taiwanese café: Hanlin Teahouse’s Tu Tsung-ho. As the story goes, Tsung-ho spotted a bag of white tapioca pearls at a local market and began adding them to his own cups of tea at home in 1986, the year before Hsiu-hui began whipping up her bubble tea. Eventually, Tsung-ho switched over to the black pearls more commonly seen nowadays and began selling the concoction at Hanlin.
While it’s still unclear who actually invented boba first, the drink’s popularity quickly skyrocketed all across Taiwan. By the mid-’90s, bubble milk tea had become a staple of the country’s night markets and cafés. Around that time, the drink made its way over to America by way of Taiwanese immigration—however, it was often a second thought, an off-menu item served in foam cups that could only be found at Taiwanese restaurants. The rise of coffeehouse culture in the mid- to late ‘90s, however, paved the way for specialty boba shops to begin popping up across America. It was all downhill from there. Boba shops began sprouting up in areas with high populations of Taiwanese Americans, and by the early 2000s, they’d become a mainstay in most urban areas throughout the country.
So How Can I Make It Myself?
Tea houses—especially the larger corporate chains—often use cheaper ingredients, from powdered teas to artificial fruit flavorings and thick, syrupy non-dairy creamers. While you can control some aspects—most places will allow you to customize the sweetness levels, amount of ice and the number of toppings—making it at home is a fun way to truly customize your boba.
Typically, boba is served with iced tea, so ideally, you’ll make the tea far enough in advance to let it chill in the fridge a bit. And if you’re looking to make a high-quality cup of artisanal pearl tea that rivals your favorite Boba Guys drink, you’ll definitely want to make sure your tea is steeped to perfection. That’s where our Raven Stovetop Tea Kettle comes in. With its built-in steep-range thermometer, you can easily figure out the right temperature for your tea, making sure that you get just the right flavor—store-bought versions are often under-brewed and taste more like a milkshake than tea. With the Raven, you can easily extract all of the right flavors from your tea, whether you choose a more traditional black or green tea for your boba, or try something a bit less commonplace with a fruity and floral herbal blend.
Now, despite their popularity, tapioca pearls aren’t exactly a household staple—but fear not! You can easily purchase some on Amazon, and cooking them is really quite simple. For the most part, it’s as easy as boiling the boba in a large pot of water until it’s nice and soft. The directions on the package will vary depending on the brand, but be sure to taste them periodically until they’ve reached your preferred consistency.
Once the boba’s finished cooking, you’ll want to set it aside to cool down a bit. While you’re waiting, prepare a quick simple syrup to sweeten your iced tea by boiling equal parts water and sugar until the mixture is totally transparent. If you’re looking to give your drink a flavorful twist, stock up on your favorite seasonal fruits and spices and add to your syrup while it’s cooking—plum-infused green tea with boba, anyone? Or how about a creamy pumpkin-spice Oolong?
Now’s where it all comes together. In a glass, scoop about a quarter cup or so of your tapioca pearls into the bottom and add your desired amount of ice (pro tip: If you like your boba especially soft, add less ice, as the colder the drink is, the firmer your boba will feel). Then, pour your glass full with your tea and desired amounts of milk and syrup—if you want something closer to the dessert beverages from boba shops, you’ll likely want to go for close to equal parts tea, syrup, and milk. But if you really want to emphasize the fresh and earthy flavors of your tea—or just want something on the lighter side—all you have to do is cut back on the milk and syrup a bit.
And that’s all there is to it! While you might not get the same satisfaction of using your straw to poke a hole in the plastic wrap lining your cup, you’ll surely be happy you indulged in preparing your own unique glass of bubble tea.
About the Author: Practically raised in his family’s kitchen, Andrew’s love of food and cooking goes all the way back to his early childhood in Sacramento, California. When he headed off to Los Angeles for college, he began writing about his experiences crafting simple, cheap meals using a three-cup rice cooker, for his award-winning column Dorm Dining at UCLA’s school newspaper, the Daily Bruin. Since then, he’s fallen in love with reporting and blogging about food, serving as a managing editor for the fashionfruit blog. You can usually find him catching up on work at one of his favorite local coffee shops – Temple Coffee in Sacramento or Espresso Profeta in Los Angeles.