I love bubble tea! Also called boba, this sweet, chewy, delicious drink originated in Taiwan and has spread worldwide, although it is still not as readily available in America as I would like it to be. :(But in Shanghai, boba stands are everywhere! You can pick up a medium iced bubble tea for 10-20 kuai (1.5-3 USD), depending on which boba chain you buy from and what toppings you like in your drink. Since there are so many options here in China, it can be a little overwhelming to order bubble tea, so I’d like to offer this small guide to boba!
For those of you who haven’t heard of boba, its a drink often made with tea, juice, milk, and/or sugar, or any combinations of those ingredients. Using different kinds of juices and teas can make completely differently flavored drinks! But bubble tea wouldn’t be bubble tea without its signature bubbles, which elevate it from a boring drink to a strange hybrid between a drink and a food. “Bubbles” are small pearls of chewy tapioca that taste vaguely sweet and nutty. They often don’t have much flavor, but I like mine as sweet and as flavorful as possible! From there, the options multiply. You can get multiple size bubbles, pudding, ice cream, grass jelly, taro bubbles, red bean, and other various personalizations. Plus, as with most drink places, you can choose varying percentages of ice and sugar.
Varying size bubbles, pudding, and ice cream are exactly what they sound like, just plopped in sweet milk tea or your drink of choice. I enjoy both small and large bubbles, but since small bubbles are basically non-existent in the US, I’d recommend you try them at least once if you come to China. I don’t like pudding in my tea, but I also don’t like pudding when its not in my tea, so I may not be a reliable reference. I have friends who love pudding in their milk tea, so if you normally like pudding, you will likely love pudding bubble tea! Ice cream milk tea is completely delicious and is a really “safe” option for people who are hesitant to branch out from American drinks- its basically something in between an ice cream float and an ice cream shake.
Grass jelly, taro bubbles, and red bean are a little more foreign to American customers. Grass jelly is sort of like jello, but it tastes more like a vaguely sweet tea- I’m not a jello fan, but I like grass jelly because it tastes very natural and the texture is so much more palatable to drink than to eat. Taro bubbles are alright, but I like regular bubbles better. They are basically small pearls of taro instead of tapioca, so they have the same shape and feel, but are less chewy and flavorful. As for red bean bubble tea, I am not a fan. Red bean is a sweet bean often found in Chinese pastries with an earthy flavor and a deep red color. I love love love red bean desserts, but personally, I don’t think they are meant to be drunk! Red bean teas look a little like regular boba, except they just have whole red beans at the bottom of your cup instead of (or along with) tapioca pearls. These beans are the wrong texture for drinking, and are often too dense to properly suck up your straw. Plus, who wants to drink a bean? Not me!
I’ve tried several boba chains here, including Coco, Happy Lemon, and Aunt Milk Tea, but Yi Dian Dian is my personal favorite. It is the tastiest (yet also the cheapest) chain I’ve found, and their drinks are also super customizable and contain the largest amount of the physical boba pearls.
There are tons of bubble tea options (I’ve only touched on the most common toppings) but personally, I love the classic milk tea with bubbles. I always get mine without ice because I feel like I’m getting more tea and less water that way, and with 100% sugar because I love sweet things. So far, I've preferred the classic bubble tea, but I am always up to try new flavors when they are available, and I encourage you to do the same!