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What is Bubble Tea?
The word “boba” can refer to either a broad category of chunky drinks — including everything from iced tea with tapioca pearls to fresh juice loaded with fruity bits — or black tapioca pearls themselves. Boba tea, bubble tea, and pearl milk tea — in Taiwan, zhenzhu naicha (珍珠奶茶) — are essentially different names for the same thing; the monikers differ by location, but also personal preference. (In the U.S., the East Coast favors bubble tea, while the West prefers boba.) Whatever you call it, in its most basic form, the drink consists of black tea, milk, ice, and chewy tapioca pearls, all shaken together like a martini and served with that famously fat straw to accommodate the marbles of tapioca that cluster at the bottom of the cup.
The pearls are made from tapioca starch, an extract of the South American cassava plant, which came to Taiwan from Brazil via Southeast Asia during the period of Japanese rule between 1895 and 1945. Tapioca pearls start white, hard, and rather tasteless, and then are boiled inside huge, bubbling vats and steeped in sugary caramelized syrup for hours, until eventually they’re transformed into those black, springy tapioca pearls we’ve come to know and slurp.