The guide for slurpers and chewy aficionados: Culy deciphers the bubble tea menu. Because what do those terms on the map actually mean? Read this guide and order your favorite treat from Taiwan next time with confidence.
When you go to order bubble tea, you stumble upon words you’ve never seen before. What do they mean?
Taiwan is the undisputed slumber capital of the world: here people don’t run to the cafe for coffee, but the caffeine is supplied by a cup of boba. You can also see that in the streets, because many boba drinkers carry their own reusable cup with them as a fashion accessory.
In recent decades, these invigorating cups — also known as bubble tea and pearl milk tea — have become a go-to drink, even outside of Taiwan.
Okay, but what is it?
Boba, or bubble tea, is a combination of tea, milk, fruit syrup and tapioca balls. Tapioca balls are made from cassava, have little flavor and are a bit chewy, just like gummy bears. You drink it with a wide straw, so the balls come up.
The ‘bubbly’ thing about the drink are of course the balls, and because it is shaken vigorously, a large foam head of small air bubbles is created. You can read here where to buy boba in the Netherlands.
Types of bubble tea
So many varieties, so many flavors: bubble tea shops often offer hundreds of variations. Here are some classics you can always fall back on:
- Milk tea: a refreshing combination of black tea, milk, and (if you choose) tapioca balls.
- Thai tea: a strong black tea, combined with sweet condensed milk and lots of tapioca balls.
- Taro bubble tea: This contains pureed taro , a purple carrot that is very similar to sweet potato but sweeter, even creamier and more creamy. The taste has something nutty.
- Fruit tea: the name says it all, this bubble tea is made from fresh fruit. You can choose what kind of tea you want to go with it, but a decaffeinated version is the most common.
Oolong, green, or matcha?
Yes: bubble tea is a standalone drink, but it is mainly a variation on tea. So it makes sense to start your order with your tea choice: would you prefer black tea (better known as red tea in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan), green tea such as jasmine tea or matcha, oolong or white tea?
Nowadays a snow ice tea, which does not involve tea at all, is also very trendy. It is a kind of instant coffee-like drink that is blended with ice.
Choose your milk
- To give bubble tea a creamy texture, (vegetable) milk is often added, such as:
- Milk powder: you can buy this powder in the supermarket and it is called coffee creamer.
- Fresh cow’s milk
- Condensed milk
- soy milk
- Lactose-free milk
- coconut milk
- Calpis: a Japanese (sweet) soft drink based on milk powder and fermented lactic acid.
Some of the more acidic fruit-based bubble teas are only available without milk because otherwise the milk will curdle.
Now that you’ve chosen the base—the tea, milk, and tapioca balls—the real flavor comes from a syrup or powder. Just like you can add a syrup to your coffee, bubble tea shops have an arsenal of bottles filled with syrups in dozens of flavors. We list a number of popular flavors:
- Honeydew, a kind of galia melon
- passion fruit
- avocado (!)
- green apple
- Jackfruit (wow)
Prefer no fruity taste? Then choose one of these flavors:
- Pudding (e.g. chocolate, custard, mango or taro)
Bubbles and toppings
The ‘bubbly’ thing about the drink is of course the balls, although the tea was originally served without the chewy tapioca. ‘Bubble’ referred to the foamy head that was created after shaking the tea. Now the whole drink revolves around what they call ‘QQ’ in Taiwan: the gummy bear texture. The most common balls with the sought-after QQ qualities are:
Tapioca Pearls : These small, round balls are made from boiled tapioca starch and have a gummy texture with no taste. They are usually dark purple, but they can also be white or pastel in color. This is by far the most popular boba.
Jelly : grass jelly (cincau) is a jelly of Chinese mesona. The chewy cubes have a slightly sweet, spicy taste that is similar to aloe vera jelly. Coconut is another jelly that you can add to your bubble tea.
Taro Balls : These balls are made from cooked taro root that is mixed with sugar and extra potato starch or tapioca. They are purple in color.
Sweet potato balls : the same as the taro balls, only made from sweet potato.
Tapioca Noodles : Usually made from white tapioca and formed into long, thin noodles that you can slurp through a wide straw.
Pudding : Decadent pieces of custard to add to your drink. Pudding comes in different flavors such as taro or coffee (the dirty chai principle).
Popping boba : a variation of the standard tapioca balls. These ‘pop’ in your mouth for a real taste explosion (a bit like caviar).
Crystal boba or agar boba : Chewy but not-so-gummy bear-like, it’s more like gelatin and the taste is reminiscent of citrus because of the konjac plant it’s made from.
Do you want to order bubble tea as it should be? The Eater has a list of ‘boba lingo ‘.