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The bubble tea breakdown: What to order, and a toppings explainer
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The bubble tea breakdown: What to order, and a toppings explainer

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Boba

SEATTLE — Summertime is here, it's hot out, so cool off with the ultimate iced beverage: boba — commonly served as a sticky sweet milk tea, with warm, chewy tapioca pearls.

Boba, also known as bubble tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and arrived in the U.S. a decade later. At this point in 2021, it's fairly ubiquitous. This is not going to be a "what are those black blobs" story, but I'll provide pointers if you still have yet to venture into the great world of boba. Over time, the boba universe has grown to include a variety of toppings and flavors, from pudding to cheese foam. To create this boba guide, we talked to boba shop owners for their tips on what to order (and in what combo!).

Here are some basic criteria to help you judge what makes a good cup of boba.

— How is the tea? Yes, you can get boba with nontea drinks, but the experts say that good tea is crucial to the perfect cup. Some factors to consider: How fresh does the tea taste? How strong is it? Is it bitter?

— How is the tapioca? You don't have to get tapioca, but again, this is the topping integral to the classic boba drink, and thus one of the gold standard yardsticks. Good quality tapioca is fresh and elastic — stale pearls will be slightly hard, lacking the signature chewy texture. According to my colleague and boba enthusiast, Seattle Times video journalist Corinne Chin, the BEST cup of boba will have a warm bottom, as it means that they've very recently cooked the tapioca to perfection.

— What do they offer? What are you looking for? Maybe the shop you're at specializes in a few types of milk tea. Or maybe they have a Cheesecake Factory-style endless menu with a vast variety of flavors, drink types and toppings? Not every boba shop will necessarily serve up exactly what you want.

How to order boba

Keep in mind that not every boba shop is the same — the number of drink/topping options at each place varies, but most will have options at least similar to these.

The basics

— Ice level: If it's a hot day, maybe stick with a regular amount of ice, but if it's colder out, you can request less or half ice. If you want a particularly strong drink you can ask for no ice, although the best chilled teas are best consumed ice-cold.

— Sweetness: Some of the fruit-flavored teas can get pretty sweet. Would you prefer to cut back on the sugar? Try ordering your drink at 75% or 50% sweetness. Or if you like none at all, you can get 0% sweet, which cuts all the added sugar but maintains the drink's flavor.

 Hot or cold: What temperature do you like your drink? Keep in mind, some toppings like tapioca and pudding may melt in hot drinks.

Drinks

Boba, also known as bubble tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980 s and arrived in the U.S. a decade later.

Assorted fruity boba tea cocktails. Boba, also known as bubble tea, originated in Taiwan in the 1980s and arrived in the U.S. a decade later. (Dreamstime/TNS)

— Milk tea: The OG, the classic, milk tea is THE boba drink. Black, oolong and jasmine are the most common tea bases, combined with milk, creamer and usually some other flavor (anything from taro, to strawberry, to brown sugar). And many shops offer dairy alternatives for the lactose intolerant. If you're thinking about which tea base to get, consider that black is the most caffeinated, with a bold, hearty flavor, while jasmine and oolong taste more light and floral.

— Tea: Maybe you wanna scrap the milk altogether? That's cool. There are many plain iced teas often infused with fruity flavors (think: lemon green tea, peach black tea, etc.).

— Slushies/Smoothies: Full honesty, if you order one of these, some self-proclaimed boba expert will appear out of the ether and shame you for disgracing bubble tea. Slushies and smoothies are the most derivative from classic boba found in Taiwan but I say ... what the heck, order what you want. If it's a hot day and you're craving an icy blended drink, go for one of these! Expect them to be a tad pricier and take longer to make than a normal tea drink, though.

Toppings

— Boba/tapioca: The classic topping people think of when they get bubble tea. These chewy, dark pearls are made from sugar and tapioca flour and pair well with any drink.

— Crystal boba: Similar in size and shape to regular boba, but made with agar (an algae-based ingredient) and comes in a whitish-clear color. It's chewy, but not as sticky and gelatinous as boba. Its neutral, sweet flavor also pairs well with any type of drink.

— Popping boba: Again, similar in size and shape to the other bobas, but very different in texture and flavor. Popping boba is comprised of a thin, edible membrane encasing a small pocket of fruit juice which bursts when you bite into it. This topping nicely complements fruity iced teas.

— Egg pudding: A silky-smooth egg-based custard that's not too sweet and goes well with milky drinks. Pudding appears as giant yellow globs that sink to the bottom of your cup, but slurps up easily when you use a straw, blending well with your drink, and doesn't require the chewing that other toppings do.

— Jellies: With a chewy texture similar to boba, jellies might be better suited for those who like having texture in their beverage, but want to give their jaw a break. Jellies are soft like jello, and can come in different flavors, including grass, mango, coffee, coconut and more. Their refreshing flavors pair well with fruity iced teas.

— Cheese foam: A relatively new phenomenon in the States, this is a topping that floats at the top of your drink, meant to be consumed without a straw so you can get a good ratio of foam to tea. Cheese foam combines milk, cream cheese and a sprinkle of salt — sort of like a liquid cheesecake. If you love a sweet-salty flavor combo, order cheese foam atop a plain iced black or green tea. The pungent, tangy cheese complements the hearty flavor of the teas.

— Red bean: Commonly found in other Chinese desserts, this is made from dry red beans and sugar. It's sweet and a little earthy, and it keeps its shape even in hot drinks, pairing well with other earthy-flavored drinks like taro and matcha.

What kind of drink should you get?

So what should you get? Sure, you can stick with the classics — black milk tea with tapioca pearls — but there are so many other great options.

Every person I spoke to for this story advised that you should experiment! One of bubble tea's greatest joys is how customizable it is. So no matter your taste — maybe you prefer coffee over tea or don't want something sweet, or like fruity flavors — you should be able to find something you like!

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