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.