No, Honey Boba is not the little girl who was briefly a reality TV sensation a few years ago. It’s the most delicious version of boba tea, a drink which originated in Taiwan in the late 1980s, apparently at a street food stall.
Many vendors claim they were the one who had the brilliant idea to create boba tea. But whoever gets the credit, the combination of three Taiwanese menu staples was pure genius.
One reason you may not be familiar with honey boba, or boba tea in general, is that you simply don’t get out much; boba shops aren’t as ubiquitous as Starbucks, but they’ve become popular hangouts throughout much of America. A better reason would be that you know boba milk tea by a different name. In some areas of the country it’s sold as “bubble tea” or “pearl milk tea,” and it’s also sometimes called “tapioca tea.”
We’ll soon be exploring the reasons why honey boba is the one of the tastiest types of boba you can drink, and we’ll explain how you can make it yourself at home.
First, though, here’s a brief primer on boba for the uninitiated.
The Invention and Popularity of Boba Tea
Milk tea was no stranger to Taiwan, or East Asia in general, when boba was invented; milk tea had been popular in the region for many centuries. It was introduced to the British and Dutch when they arrived in India, and then brought to Taiwan by the Dutch when they colonized the island in the early 17th century.
When boba tea was created, tapioca balls (also called pearls) and flavored shaved ice were both common desserts served by Taiwanese street vendors. And one of them, as the story goes, had the idea to serve both of those desserts together with milk tea. The tapioca was combined with flavored shaved ice, and milk tea was then used to fill the rest of the cup.
Boba tea was an instant hit. It was initially called bubble tea but was popularly christened as “boba,” the Chinese slang term for breasts, which refers to the shape of the tapioca balls floating in the tea. The tapioca is made from cassava starch, also known as yuca and similar to the yam.
As more and more shops began serving their own versions of boba milk tea, fruit, fruit syrups and powders – plus sweeteners like honey – were often used in place of the flavored shaved ice. Street vendors and boba shops began experimenting with ingredients other than tapioca, with some using egg pudding, almond jelly, rice balls, red beans or grass jelly instead of tapioca pearls. Many also began replacing the milk in milk tea with non-dairy creamer, so the concoction would stay stable until served; that substitution made boba tea extremely creamy and sweet.
However, all of the variations are still collectively known as boba or bubble tea. Its immense popularity led to nearly everyone strolling the street markets in Taiwan with a boba in their hand, the island’s boba shops competing for customers with coffee shops (and often winning), and even chain stores selling boba tea.
The craze spread to Hong Kong, China and Japan in the mid-1990s, then to Oahu. From there, it moved on to Taiwanese, Chinese and Japanese neighborhoods in the U.S. and Canada, where local Asian tea shops began selling boba and immigrants bonded over their chewy, delicious drinks. The 2010s saw the arrival of Boba tea chains like San Francisco-based Boba Guys, which have opened shops in cities like Los Angeles and New York. Versions of bubble tea are now available in boba shops in almost every major metropolitan area and state around America.
The Many Varieties of Boba Tea
The first time you try boba tea you should really sample the traditional version, so you can better appreciate the variations that many other versions of bubble tea, including honey boba, bring to the dance.
“Classic” boba milk tea is made from black tea with tapioca pearls, fresh milk and a traditional flavoring syrup such as lychee or mango. The drink is creamy, thick, crunchy (because of the tapioca) and luscious. Green tea is often substituted for the black tea (making it green milk tea), and many other syrups like passion fruit, strawberry, kiwi or peach are common replacements for lychee.
Boba connoisseurs often choose to have their drinks made with other types of tea, and most boba shops have a wide variety of teas on hand for that reason. You can opt for boba made with matcha tea for a more full-bodied drink, or with jasmine green tea for a subtle yet sweet taste. Orange Thai tea used as a boba base gives the concoction a strong and spicy flavor, Earl Grey contributes a more lemony taste, and the flavor of oolong milk tea depends on which of the diverse varieties of oolong is used.
Different types of milk are also available at most shops to change up the flavor of boba tea. Almond milk boba tea has a nutty, sweet flavor (particularly if almond flavoring is also added to the beverage), and is a delicious gluten-free, lactose-free alternative. Coconut milk or soy milk can also be used by those looking for a different flavor or who are lactose-intolerant.
Other ingredients are often added to bubble tea. One popular version is purple-colored taro milk tea, with powdered taro root powder added to the beverage for a nutty, vanilla-like taste. Others variations include honeydew milk tea made with either honeydew fruit, honeydew powder or honeydew milk; and mocha bubble tea, made with mocha powder as an extra ingredient.
As you may have guessed by now, most boba shops are quite similar to the smoothie shops that populate America’s downtowns and strip malls. They will customize your boba drinks in almost any way imaginable, including the addition of a wide range of toppings other than tapioca pearls like aloe vera jelly and flavored custards. If you prefer traditional tapioca, the boba balls are available in clear or colored forms, as black pearls flavored with brown sugar or caramel, or as boba coated in flavored syrup. There are even “popping boba,” filled with fruit juice which is released when you bite down on them.
Many boba shops also serve smoothies and slushies, yogurt tea and green tea lemonade. One more favorite: royal milk tea, also called Japanese milk tea, which is black tea and milk sweetened with sugar or honey.
Ah, honey. You were wondering when we going to get to honey, and more specifically, honey boba. Your patience has been rewarded, because the wait is over.
Honey boba has become a very popular form of the milk tea; there’s even a HoneyBoba chain with stores throughout California and Hawaii.
There are two ways that honey boba can be prepared. For one form, honey is simply added to the tea, milk and tapioca pearls; honey adds a noticeable and identifiable sweetness to the drink, with the flavor depending on the variety of honey that’s used. The second and more common option is to cook the tapioca pearls in honey before adding them to the drink, leaving the pearls with a luscious, sweet coating.
There’s no real secret to the type of honey that works best with boba milk tea; it depends on your individual taste. If you’re looking to add a classic honey flavor, try making boba with acacia or clover honey. If you want a richer taste, buckwheat or sourwood would be good choices to use. And if you already enjoy the woodsy flavor and aroma of linden honey with your tea, you’ll find that using it in boba milk tea brings the experience to an entirely new level.
Making Your Own Honey Boba
Accomplished cooks may want to make their own tapioca pearls on your own, but it’s easier to buy delicious pre-made ones at any Asian supermarket or on Amazon. With the help of those pre-made boba, it’s surprisingly simple to make honey boba tea at home.
The first version of homemade honey boba tea is the one in which honey is just added to the drink as a sweetener.
Homemade Honey Boba Tea
- Brew or steep one cup of your favorite tea, and let it cool to room temperature. (If using tea bags, use two bags for each cup of tea.)
- Cook ¼ cup of tapioca pearls according to the package directions.
- Combine a few ice cubes, ¼ cup milk, and three teaspoons of honey, pour over the pearls, add the tea and mix well.
This recipe can easily be doubled or quadrupled, and you can adjust the proportions of ingredients to your liking.
Here’s how to make tapioca pearls coated in honey, to be added to your favorite milk tea recipe.
- Cook one cup of tapioca balls according to directions on the package, usually simmering them for about five minutes after they’ve expanded and risen to the top of a pot of boiling water.
- Place the boba into cool water for 30 seconds, and then steep them in a bowl with three tablespoons of honey and ¼ cup of simple syrup for 1-3 hours.
- Serve in your favorite milk tea.
Careful! This honey boba is so easy to make, and so yummy, that you can easily become addicted. As we’ll discuss next, that’s not ideal if you’re thinking about your health.
Is Honey Boba Good For You?
Since it’s universally acknowledged that honey is one of the healthiest foods you can eat, and the phenols and polyphenols in tea are thought to help fight medical problems like heart disease, you might think that honey boba tea is an extremely healthy drink.
Unfortunately, it really isn’t. Even if you use raw, unfiltered honey (which contains the bee pollen which contributes most of honey’s health benefits) to prepare your boba, tapioca is almost all carbohydrates and very high in calories, with no vitamins, very few minerals and no nutritional benefits. And if you make your drink with whole milk, that adds fat and more calories to the picture.
In other words, there’s no real upside to boba other than its taste. And adding honey to the mix doesn’t really deliver the health benefits you’d hope for, since the drink’s other ingredients create such a large nutritional hill to climb. If you’re adding honey to your diet because of its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, you’re much better off using it in a different way.
Does that mean you should avoid honey boba? Of course not, any more than you’d avoid the occasional milkshake because you’re careful about what you eat and drink. But you wouldn’t want to make either one a part of your daily diet, if you’re at all concerned about fitness and good health.
Honey boba is a wonderful treat, enjoyed by more and more Americans each year. In moderation, it’s also one of the most delicious ways you can consume honey.