What Is Boba? Everything to Know About Bubble Tea

By: Clarissa Mitton  | 
If you haven't tried the sweet, slightly creamy iced tea with tapioca pearls, you're behind the times. visualspace / Getty Images

You're not alone if you've ever found yourself wondering, "What is boba?" This food trend has taken the drink market by storm, enchanting tea enthusiasts and curious foodies alike.

Originating in Taiwan during the 1980s, boba — also known as tapioca pearls — has become a quintessential component of what is popularly known as boba tea, bubble tea or milk tea. These sweet, chewy pearls are more than just a fad; they are a cultural phenomenon that has woven itself into the fabric of the food world.


What Is Boba?

Boba refers to the small, round tapioca pearls that are the hallmark of bubble tea. Made from tapioca starch, which is derived from the cassava root, these pearls are typically black and have a soft, chewy consistency similar to gummy candy.

When added to a drink — often a tea-based beverage mixed with milk or fruit flavors — they create a delightful contrast to the creamy or refreshing liquid they're served with. The popularity of bubble tea has transformed boba from a novelty into a relatively commonplace ingredient in various desserts.


Where Did Boba Come From?

The story of who invented boba tea is steeped in competition and cultural innovation. This popular drink traces its origins back to Taiwan in the 1980s, with two tea shops claiming to have created the first bubble tea.

The Chun Shui Tang tea shop in the central city of Taichung began experimenting with cold milk tea drinks, adding the distinctive tapioca pearls to create a new sensation. Meanwhile, the Hanlin Tea Room in the southern city of Tainan made its own version, using white tapioca pearls to distinguish its drink, which quickly turned into a local favorite.


Both establishments are credited with transforming traditional Taiwanese tea culture into a global phenomenon, making boba tea an international success story.

How Are Boba Pearls Made?

Tapioca pearls are the star ingredient in traditional boba tea. These tapioca balls are crafted from tapioca starch, which is extracted from the cassava root — a versatile tuber native to South America but extensively cultivated in Asia.

The process of making chewy tapioca pearls begins with mixing the tapioca starch with boiling water until a kneadable dough forms. This dough is then rolled into small balls, which are boiled until they achieve their signature chewy texture.


After boiling, the pearls are typically soaked in a sweet syrup to enhance their flavor before being added to the refreshing tea-based drink. This meticulous process ensures that the pearls maintain their chewy consistency and sweet taste, essential for the perfect cup of bubble tea.

How Is Boba Used?

Boba is most famously used in bubble tea, a versatile drink that can be made with various types of tea and flavorings. In its most classic form, boba milk tea, also known as bubble milk tea, combines black tea with milk and sweetened tapioca pearls, offering a creamy texture and sweet chewiness in every sip.

This popular concoction can also be made with green tea for a lighter, more floral taste profile. But that's not all! You can also get boba in other drinks, such as slushies, fruit smoothies and even coffee. The flexibility of bubble tea allows for numerous variations, including the use of fruit juices or syrups to create nondairy versions.


The chewy texture of the pearls contrasts delightfully with the silkiness of milk tea or the refreshing crispness of green tea, making boba a beloved addition to these beverages. Each variation provides a unique experience, catering to a wide range of palates and preferences.

Is Boba Vegan?

Determining whether boba is vegan-friendly depends largely on how it's prepared. The pearls themselves, made from tapioca starch, are inherently vegan as they are derived from the cassava root, a plant-based ingredient.

However, traditional bubble tea, which includes milk, may not suit a vegan diet without modifications.


Fortunately, many bubble tea shops now offer alternatives like almond milk or other nondairy milks, allowing vegan customers to enjoy boba milk tea without compromising their dietary preferences.

When ordering boba tea as a vegan, confirm that the pearls haven't been presoaked in non-vegan syrups and that any additional toppings or ingredients also meet vegan standards.


Popular Boba Flavors to Try

Bubble tea comes in a delightful array of different flavors, each offering a unique taste experience. One of the most beloved varieties is brown sugar boba, where chewy tapioca pearls are steeped in rich brown sugar syrup, creating a deeply sweet and caramel-like flavor.

For those who prefer a fruity flavor, options like mango boba and passion fruit boba are must-tries. These versions replace traditional milk bases with fruit juice, infusing the drink with vibrant, tangy notes.


Fruit boba often includes bits of real fruit, enhancing the freshness and appeal. Another popular choice is milk tea with condensed milk, adding a creamy, sweet depth that complements the simplicity of the tea.

Where to Buy Boba

Finding where to buy boba for your homemade boba tea or to satisfy your craving is easier than ever. Tapioca balls are readily available in a variety of locations. Many boba tea shops offer a wide selection of pre-made boba teas with customizable options.

Additionally, boba shops are increasingly common in cities worldwide, serving both traditional and innovative bubble tea flavors.


For those interested in making their own bubble tea, tapioca pearls can be purchased at local markets and grocery stores. These stores typically carry all the necessary ingredients to create boba tea at home, including the pearls, tea and flavorings.

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.