Time to Get Technical: Are Bubble Tea and Boba the Same?

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With bubble tea growing in popularity, so are the names we use to talk about it. While all of these different names refer to the same drink, here we will explain the technical differences and how they came about. One thing is certain: all variations of boba tea and bubble tea include tea, milk, and tapioca pearls.

What Is Boba?

Boba technically refers to the tapioca pearls in the bottom of a bubble tea made from the cassava root’s tapioca starch. After being mixed with water and rolled into small spheres, they are usually simmered in brown sugar syrup.

With the drink’s growing popularity, many people refer to the entire beverage as boba or boba tea. However, in reality, the word ‘boba’ is slang for ‘big breasts’ in Chinese because of the round shape of the boba pearls in bubble tea.

What Is Bubble Tea?

Bubble tea is a drink made by layering cooked tapioca pearls, ice, and a milk tea base. Bubble tea has many variations. It can be made with various types of tea—fruit tea, oolong tea, green tea, matcha tea, or black tea. Many recipes include dairy-free milk like oat milk, coconut milk, almond milk, or soy milk. You can also use non-dairy creamer or sweetened condensed milk.

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Various bubble teas

Sometimes bubble tea is made without any tea at all. Instead, you can prepare the drink with fresh fruit blended with milk and sweetener. Bubble tea most commonly includes tapioca pearls, although other toppings are available. It is enjoyed through a wide boba straw that allows you to sip the drink and topping in the same mouthful.

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The term ‘bubble’ in bubble tea originated because bubbles form after the barista shakes the beverage, combining the tea, milk, and flavorings. Now, though, ‘bubble’ refers to the tapioca pearls at the bottom that look like bubbles.

Why Is Bubble Tea Called Boba?

As bubble tea popularity grew in the United States, different areas developed different names for this milk tea drink. People on the West Coast typically refer to bubble tea as boba. People on the East Coast of the United States usually say bubble tea.

People use bubble tea and boba interchangeably to refer to the same drink. So, you can say, ‘Let’s go get some boba!’ or “Have you been to that new bubble tea shop?” and refer to the same thing.

What Is the Difference Between Boba Tea and Milk Tea?

Boba tea is a drink with tapioca pearls, milk, tea, and ice. These ingredients are typical Taiwanese street food and dessert ingredients; combining them makes boba tea.

Milk tea, however, is made with just milk and tea. Milk tea has been a staple in Britain, Europe, and Asia for centuries. Thai milk tea, matcha lattes, and black tea with condensed milk are all examples of milk tea. Milk tea is combined with tapioca pearls to make bubble tea.

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Milk teas

What Is the Origin of Bubble Tea?

Tapioca pearls, shaved ice, and milk tea have been long-time favorites in Taiwan for centuries. It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that a Taiwanese tea shop combined these elements to create bubble tea.

Bubble tea quickly spread throughout Taiwan, and tea shop owners rushed to create unique variants that would entice customers. Some vendors used fruit boba, jellies, puddings, and even sweetened red beans to enhance their bubble teas. Soon after, Boba tea spread throughout southeast Asia, Europe, and the United States.

SEE ALSO:  What Is Coconut Jelly Bubble Tea?

Other Names for Bubble Tea

  • Tapioca tea
  • Pearl tea
  • Milk tea
  • Pearl Milk tea
  • Boba
  • Boba milk tea
  • Black pearl tea

Other Names for Tapioca Pearls

  • Boba balls
  • Tapioca balls
  • Boba pearls
  • Boba
  • Zhenzhu (pearl in Chinese)


Sarah loves indulging in bubble tea near her home in southern Indiana. She constantly experiments with flavor combinations, but her favorite flavor is passion fruit. She enjoys experimenting in her home kitchen and hopes to one day be a pro at making her own bubble tea.

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