This was originally published on Sift & Simmer in May 2017. Updated January 2021.
If you’ve been around an Asian mall food court, you will have seen them: pastel-coloured drinks with neon-coloured wide fat straws sticking up and black mini balls on the bottom.
WHAT IS BUBBLE TEA?
It’s a tea-based drink consisting of tapioca pearls (more commonly known as “boba” in the States) and was invented in the late ’80s in Taiwan.
The “bubbles” come from the foam that was produced by shaking the tea with ice.
Bubble tea was originally made with black tea, tapioca pearls, condensed milk/honey, but soon, different variations and mashups appeared.
Tapioca pearls are now commonly found in these bubble tea drinks.
WHAT IS TAPIOCA?
Tapioca starch is a white starch derived from the cassava plant.
It is commonly used as a thickener, similar to cornstarch.
WHAT ARE BOBA/TAPIOCA PEARLS?
Tapioca pearls are made from a mixture of tapioca starch and water.
The “dough” is rolled into small spherical balls.
Raw tapioca pearls are white and opaque, but turns translucent when cooked.
WHAT DO TAPIOCA PEARLS TASTE LIKE?
Cooked tapioca pearls have a squishy gelatin mouthfeel that are slightly chewy, with a texture similar to gummy bears.
WHEN I FIRST TRIED BUBBLE TEA
My first encounter with the Taiwanese-famous Bubble Tea drink was during my first year at University.
My cousin took me to a bubble tea shop in Chinatown.
There was a menu with a smorgasbord of drinks and different options.
Black tea or green tea. Hot or cold. Sweetened or unsweetened. Milk or non-dairy creamer. Powder or real fruit. Pearls or coconut jelly. My mind was going in a million different directions.
Finally, I settled on my first bubble tea drink: honeydew melon with pearls. Little did I know that it would be the first of many drinks which would be consumed during my University days.
DEHP & CHEMICALS IN BUBBLE TEA
In 2011, I learned about DEHP, a chemical used to make plastics, that was found in the synthetic fruit syrups used in bubble tea.
In addition, there were multiple health news articles that stated that bubble tea pearls contained ingredients that were cancer-causing.
After learning that, I became wary of bubble tea and stayed away from it. Especially since I knew it had no nutritional value and that it could be detrimental to my health? No thanks.
The latest news I’ve come across is that fake tapioca pearls are being made with rubber tires and old leather shoes. Ew, yuck!
For something as simple as it sounds, tapioca pearls should consist of just tapioca starch and water.
Yet, even if you purchase the dried packaged tapioca pearls at the supermarket, you’ll notice that the ingredient list is filled with chemicals, preservatives, and artificial flavours.
HOW TO MAKE TAPIOCA PEARLS FROM SCRATCH
Back in 2015, I was determined to make my own bubble tea.
Not by using the already pre-packaged tapioca pearls which you can find in Asian supermarkets.
But by single handedly making the tapioca pearls “pearls” from scratch.
INGREDIENTS YOU’LL NEED:
There are only 2 main ingredients to making tapioca pearls.
Just hot water and tapioca starch.
HOW TO MAKE HOMEMADE TAPIOCA PEARLS
All you need to do is mix in HOT boiling water with the tapioca starch and knead until a dough forms.
Note: it’s important that the water is hot, or the dough will not come together.
If the dough is too dry, add a little bit of water to it at a time.
Knead and feel the dough with your hands. If it’s too wet, add just a touch of starch. You don’t want the dough to be too sticky.
Form into a log, and roll into 1 cm balls.
That will produce white tapioca pearls.
HOW TO MAKE THE TAPIOCA PEARLS DARK IN COLOUR
However, I wasn’t able to visually get the pearls to look dark enough even through soaking them in a brown sugar tea syrup.
They just turned slightly translucent brown — definitely not as dark as store-bought.
THE SECRET INGREDIENT
I’ve reworked my recipe and it really looks and tastes like the real deal.
Without chemicals, artificial colours or flavours.
And no old tires here, I promise. The secret ingredient…?
Black Activated Charcoal.
WHAT IS ACTIVATED CHARCOAL?
Activated charcoal is a powder primarily used for poisoning and helps to get rid unwanted toxins in the body.
You can find activated charcoal in health food stores.
In this recipe, it is used to colour the tapioca pearls. It is purely optional.
Just add ⅛ tsp activated charcoal to the tapioca starch and mix with the hot water.
HOW TO COOK THE TAPIOCA PEARLS
Bring a pot of water to a boil and cook the pearls for 6-7 minutes.
Strain the pearls and place them into sugar tea syrup.
HOW TO ENJOY THE COOKED BOBA
Or in a fruit/slush or milk-based tea.
Alternatively, try it in a sweet dessert such as Mango Pomelo Sago Pudding 楊枝甘露.
HOW TO STORE AND REHEAT COOKED TAPIOCA PEARLS
Tapioca pearls do harden when they are cold. (It’s also why slushy ice drinks can cause the pearls to be stiff).
While you can store the cooked pearls in the fridge, you will need to gently reheat them (in boiling water) before serving for optimal texture.
OTHER RECIPES YOU MAY LIKE
If you love tapioca pearls, you may enjoy these recipes:
Now you can make bubble tea any time you want for literally pennies(!), and know exactly what is going into your tea and boba tapioca pearls.
Let me know if you try my recipe by tagging me @siftandsimmer or leave me a comment! I’d love to know what flavour combo you enjoy in bubble tea.
Homemade Tapioca Pearls (Boba) for Bubble Tea
For accuracy and precision in baking recipes, use weight (metric) measurements when available.
- 1 capsule activated charcoal optional
- 12 tsp tapioca starch
- 4 tsp boiling *hot* water
Sugar Tea Syrup
- ¼ C hot water
- 2 Tbsp brown sugar
- 1 black tea bag
Make the Tapioca Pearls:
- Place tapioca starch into a bowl. Pull apart a capsule of activated charcoal [found in health food stores/pharmacies]. (This is totally optional, only used to make the tapioca pearls appear black). And dump the contents from the capsule into the tapioca starch and mix together.
- Using a kettle, boil some water and measure out 4 teaspoons of *hot* water. (Water must be hot or the mixture will not form). Stir the hot water quickly into the tapioca starch with a pair of chopsticks. Mix well. Then use your hands to knead the mass together into a dough. Don't be tempted to add too much water at first or else your mixture will turn into a gooey mess. Keep kneading until you can form a long thin rope about 1 cm wide with the dough.
- Use a butter knife to cut the rope into small pea-size pieces (about 1cm in diameter) and roll each piece into a ball with your hands. (The tapioca balls will expand slightly when cooked).
- Place the balls onto a piece of parchment paper dusted lightly with some tapioca flour.
- In a small pot, add 1 L of water and bring to a boil. Add the tapioca balls into the water. Let boil until they float to the top, about 6-7 minutes. Be careful not to overcook or it will turn to mush. You still want a slight chew to the pearls.
- Use a slotted spoon to remove pearls. Place pearls into Sugar Tea Syrup (recipe below) to soak for at least 1 hour.
- Tapioca pearls are now ready to use in your drink of choice.
Make the Sugar Tea Syrup:
- Combine hot water, sugar, and black tea and mix well. Let tea steep for 15 minutes and then remove tea bag.