Born in Taipei, Tiffany Chang moved to the US as a child, then moved to London in 2006. She started a Taiwanese bento box business and supper club in 2015. She also competed on Channel 4’s Crazy Delicious in 2020 and won episode two. Here, she tells us everything you need to know about bubble tea.
What is bubble tea?
Bubble tea or boba tea is a tea-based drink that originated in Taiwan in the 1980s. It is commonly known to be served with sweetened milk and chewy tapioca balls in a sealed plastic cup with an extra-large straw. I grew up drinking boba tea and always found it funny that I had to drink and chew at the same time.
There is a debate on who actually invented boba tea. One story says the owner of the Chun Shui Tang tea room, a tea house in central Taiwan city Taichung, claimed he got the idea of serving cold tea when he noticed coffee being served cold while on a visit in Japan. Then one day, during a staff meeting, his product development manager poured some prepared tapioca balls into her drink and the very first boba tea was born. The other story is from another tea room, the Hanlin Tea Room of Tainan, the southern part of Taiwan, where the owner said he was inspired when he saw white tapiocas on sale in a local market. He decided to mix it with tea and created ‘pearl tea’.
There are different sizes of tapioca balls. The large dark-coloured ones are called boba and the smaller ones, which could either be white or amber-coloured, are called pearls. The names are interchangeable these days depending on who you ask and where they’re from. In Taiwan, it’s a north and south thing. In the US, it could be a west coast versus east coast thing. Even in California alone, the north and south have their own preferences. There is even rumour that the word ‘bubble' in bubble tea doesn’t refer to the toppings at all, and that instead it's because of the foam that forms when you shake the milk.
What kind of tea do you use for bubble tea?
Traditionally, black tea is the preferred choice. Personally, I still prefer black tea. In any reputable bubble tea shop, you have all types of tea available. Assam is very often used as the standard, but some tea is better to drink cold and mixed with milk. For example, for something light, green tea, jasmine tea, oolong, Assam and Darjeeling are all good options. For something with a bit more body and oomph, you can choose English breakfast, matcha or pu'er tea. If you prefer something with some more flavour, Earl Grey or masala chai will work well.
What kind of milk do you use for bubble tea?
Whole milk is always the best choice, not just for flavour but, when you shake it, it foams up the best. Nowadays, some places do have non-dairy options like soy or almond. I can’t say if non-dairy milk would work because I’ve never tried it myself. In Taiwan, you often have to pay extra for ‘real milk’ because many places would use milk powder or creamer because it is much cheaper.
What kind of sweetener do you use in bubble tea?
Traditionally, sugar syrup is used in the milk and I still prefer that over a spoonful of caster sugar, because the sugar has to dissolve and sugar syrup distributes quickly and evenly. In our recipe, we prepared two different types of syrup. One is a clear sugar syrup to flavour the milk tea and one is a dark brown sugar syrup to flavour the tapioca. The latter is a much more recent development as the dark sugar syrup creates a marbling effect with the milk. One of the most popular options in the last few years is the brown sugar boba tea, which actually does not contain any tea. It is brown boba gently cooked in caramelised brown sugar, topped with ice and milk then shaken.
Other sweeteners can be used such as honey, maple syrup and, one of the favourites in any Asian pantry, sweetened condensed milk.
One of the best things about boba/bubble tea is how customisable each drink can be. You can have it with 50%, 30% or zero sugar; you can choose how much ice there is; and you can have no topping or all the toppings you desire.
Top tips for bubble tea
- If you want to have a foamy effect, add the tea, syrup, milk and ice in a shaker and shake for 6 seconds. Then, add everything into the glass with the syrup boba.
- Use milk without any tea for an extra creamy taste.
- You can substitute sugar syrup with honey, caster sugar, light-brown sugar or agave syrup.
- It’s best to use quick-cook or pre-made boba to save time.
- Only cook enough boba for the amount you are serving, as the shelf life of cooked boba is only about 3 hours.
- Never refrigerate cooked boba – drink boba tea fresh. The longer boba sit in something cold, the quicker they will harden.
- The best thing about homemade boba tea is you can adjust the sweetness, the amount of ice or even the style of tea, so get creative to suit your taste.
Comments, questions and tips