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In The Family
What Is Boba, Exactly?

Here’s how tapioca pearls are made.

These days, boba tea is a worldwide phenomenon, but even its most ardent fans may not know much about the chewy bubbles at the core of the drink. So: What are boba, and where do they come from? These chewy spheres are made from partially cooked tapioca flour, which is the refined starch of the cassava plant, a starchy root like taro that’s indigenous to Latin America but now grown worldwide.

Once refined, the low-protein flour is either sold as is or molded into various shapes, most commonly little pearls. Taiwanese cooks have been making sweets and drink with tapioca pearls for a long time, but boba tea as we know it is a more recent invention, dating back only to the late ’80s, when Liu Han-Chieh, the owner of Chun Shui Tang teahouse in Taichung, swapped the common small pearls for larger, poppier boba.

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Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.