A creamy bubble tea with tapioca pearls on a wooden bench with a straw

A Beginner’s Guide to Bubble Tea

Want to know how to order bubble tea for the first time? Looking for the ultimate bubble tea how-to? Our international food columnist, Zsófi, has got you covered.

This might be somewhat of a bold claim, but I think some of you are like me. You agree that sharks are fascinating creatures that are essential for a healthy oceanic ecosystem and consider the film Jaws anti-shark propaganda. You have a broken phone screen that you refuse to fix or replace. Largely because it’s expensive, but also because it would mean contributing to consumerist capitalism and you’re not about to give Steve Jobs and Lee Byung-Chull the satisfaction. When you eat a meal, you save the best bits of whatever’s on your plate for the last bite so you finish on a high. And I know with certainty that you have heard of bubble tea before. 

Maybe you have even walked into a bubble tea shop. But, at first glance, it was all too overwhelming: the range of choice, the unfamiliar ingredients, the cauldron of brown tapioca pearls in the corner, the sound of the mixer shaking cups of sugary drinks… Well, you needn’t worry. While I am too small to take the fight directly to Steven Spielberg’s front door and too stubborn to give in to what really have become necessary repairs, I can at the least offer some help on the last commonality that we share.

While I don’t claim to be an expert, over the years, I have become my friends’ and my friends’ friends’ go-to on all things bubble tea, whether to walk them through their first bubble tea shop experience or to give recommendations about what they would enjoy. Now, I have put all of this knowledge and more into this Beginner’s Guide to Bubble Tea for you to consult for your bubble tea-induced panic moments.

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The History of Bubble Tea

Bubble tea is a sweet drink made with black tea, milk, sugar and the famous chewable tapioca pearls. It is often consumed cold with plenty of ice but to make sure you don’t go without, even during the colder winter months, you can drink it hot. Bubble tea is also known as boba tea, named after the tapioca pearls that are made from tapioca flour mixed with brown sugar and water.

Its origins date back to 1940s Taiwan when former mixologist, Chan Fang Shu, had the inventive idea to shake tea in cocktail shakers. He opened a tea shop where he sold these special drinks that came to be known as foam teas owing to the thin layer of bubbles forming at the surface after shaking. Interestingly, despite what many people would assume, it is after these air bubbles and not after the addition of the tapioca pearls that bubble tea is named.

While we can be sure that foam tea can be traced back to Chang Fang Shu and his cocktail shakers, the origin of bubble tea as we know it today is much debated. Some believe it was down-on-his-luck entrepreneur Tu Tsong-ho who first poured tapioca pearls, previously a popular snack or dessert, into his tea. Others say it was Lin Hsiu Hui who felt inspired in her lunch break to combine her office snack with the Assam tea she had just bought. 

Although we cannot be sure who to thank for our favourite indulgence, we know that it has now reached global success. Today, boba tea can be found in over 50 countries and according to a recent study, the bubble tea industry is expected to grow to a $4.3 billion industry by 2027.

Read more from Zsófi: The Best Bubble Tea Places in London

A Beginners Guide to Bubble Tea

While the number of bubble tea shops and drinkers are multiplying by the day, I have known many who, although have heard of the beverage before, feel overwhelmed by the unfamiliarity of it. And six years ago, I belonged firmly in this group. Back then, bubble tea was still a novelty in the UK and I had only heard of it from a close friend who had spent the previous years travelling in East Asia. She had come back to the country with some valuable teaching experience, a backpack full of polaroids, many entertaining dinner party stories, and a taste for what later became both our favourite drinks: bubble tea.

While she backpacked around the beautiful landscapes of South Korea and Thailand, I spent my days in Scotland firm in my belief that water, in fact, was the best beverage this world had to offer. Despite having moved to the country of the ever-echoing question ‘Should I put on the kettle?’, I was never a tea drinker. I lacked even the most basic understanding of the differences between green tea and black tea – and I had certainly never heard of oolong or Assam tea.

So, on the rare summer day during that one week we affectionately call summer in Scotland, when my friend grabbed me by the hand and took me to my first bubble tea shop, I, with a rather puzzled look on my face, asked her to order for me. A few minutes later, I had a Lemon Green Tea with Pearls in my hand.

A fine choice for a first experience, but as somebody to whom the idea of enjoying a drink (instead of using it to quench your thirst or as an excuse to avoid eye contact with a professor who is looking for volunteers for a class demonstration) was completely new, a drink with chewable pearls was more than I could handle. So I thanked my friend for the culinary adventure, went home, and didn’t walk into another bubble tea shop until three years later. Ironically, the same friend now teases me endlessly about how I have exceeded even her in my bubble tea consumption. I have also become known amongst friends and acquaintances for always having bubble tea in my hand or on my mind. 

So how did I get over this confusion? I experimented. The aspect of bubble tea I enjoy the most is its personalisability. Bubble tea comes in a wide range of flavours, from classic milk teas to fruit-infused teas, from tapioca pearls to coconut jelly or popping boba, from salted cheese toppings to whole pieces of strawberry in your cup. You have all the opportunity to create a drink custom-made for your tastebuds. And you can do this in exactly five easy steps.

Read more: The Best Bubble Tea Places in Budapest

How to Order Bubble Tea

Step 1 – Choose Your Tea

You have two main options. You can choose classic teas, where milk is added to your black or oolong tea. Or if you’d prefer, you can go for fruit teas, which are refreshing fruity drinks made from fruit syrups and usually without tea.

Step 2 – Pick Your Flavour

Milk teas can be prepared in various ways, with matcha or wintermelon flavouring. Or perhaps, if you’d like to try something very new, I recommend you try taro, a purple root vegetable similar to sweet potato. Fruit teas can of course include any and all fruit flavours your local shop has to offer. My personal favourite, however, would have to be lychee.  A little note here: for those who are reluctant about consuming caffeine, even in bubble tea form, you can go for any black tea-free option. These would typically include all fruit teas, and some flavoured milk teas, such as the previously mentioned taro or one of my recent favourites, Thai Milk Tea.

Step 3 – Choose your sweetness level

The sweetness can range from extra sweet to zero sugar with the middle categories half sweet and less sweet. I like my bubble tea sweet so I always go for normal sweetness, but I know many who prefer for the bitter taste of the tea to come through. In that case, I’d recommend the half sweet option.

Step 4 – Choose your ice level

Your three options are: normal ice, less ice or hot. I am not a fan of bubble tea hot, but my tastebuds are trained on eating ice cream even on the coldest February days. So if you think you would like it, hot bubble tea could be a fantastic winter drink. When the temperature isn’t so low, I’d most certainly choose normal ice.

Step 5 – Add toppings

Traditional bubble tea comes with tapioca pearls. I maintain that tapioca pearls continue to be the best for all milk tea variations. However, as bubble tea grew, so did the number and variety of toppings. Some current popular ones include fruit jellies, which pair fantastically with the refreshing fruit teas, and popping boba, which have the unique feature of exploding in your mouth to reveal a strong fruit flavour.

An example bubble tea menu for beginners

Once you have followed these five steps and ordered your first bubble tea, the only important instruction left is to shake, mix and shake some more. Many bubble teas will have brown sugar syrup poured on the side of the cup or fruit bits floating at the bottom. All that flavour will really come alive once you have shaken your tea some more. After that, well, all there’s left to do is enjoy this fantastic indulgence and let us know how your first bubble tea experience went!

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