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.
Those mini black balls are the name-sake of the drink called “Bubble Tea.”
So what exactly is Bubble Tea? It’s a tea based drink consisting of tapioca pearls (which are the “bubbles” and are known more commonly as “boba” in the States) and was invented in the late ’80s in Taiwan. It was originally made with black tea, tapioca pearls, condensed milk/honey, but soon, different variations and mashups appeared. The tapioca pearls have a squishy gelatin mouthfeel that are slightly chewy similar to gummy bears.
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. It was a small shop, with a few seats, and an interesting sweet smell.
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.
In 2011, I learned about DEHP, a chemical used to make plastics, 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 was wary of bubble tea and stayed away from it since I knew it had no nutritional value and now 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.
Back in 2015, I was determined to make my own bubble tea. Not by using the already prepackaged tapioca pearls. But by single handedly making the tapioca pearls “bubbles” from scratch. I did, and it was super simple. Just water and tapioca starch.
However, I wasn’t able to visually get the pearls to look dark enough even through soaking them in my brown sugar tea syrup.
But 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.
I’m ready to share my recipe for a simple, milk tea bubble tea with legitimate homemade tapioca pearls. Now you can make bubble tea any time you want for literally pennies(!), and know exactly what is going into your tea and tapioca pearls. Then change up the flavours of your bubble tea — make it slushy, fruity, tea, or milk-based… the sky’s the limit!
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
Yield: 2 Servings
1 capsule activated charcoal (optional)
12 tsp tapioca starch [I didn’t have success using the blue and white Thai brand tapioca starch]
4 tsp boiling *hot* water
Place tapioca starch into a bowl. Pull apart a capsule of activated charcoal (found in health food stores/pharmacies). Dump the contents from the capsule into the tapioca starch and incorporate together.
Using a kettle, boil some water and measure out 3 teaspoons of hot water. 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 or else your mixture will turn into a gooey mess. Keep kneading until you can form a long rope with the dough.
Cut the rope into small pea-size pieces and roll each piece into a ball with your hands. (The tapioca balls will expand slightly when cooked).
Place 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 7-10 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.
Note 1: Tapioca pearls can be kept at room temperature soaking the syrup for up to 4 hours. You may choose to store leftover tapioca pearls in the refrigerator. Before serving, heat the chilled tapioca pearls in hot boiling water for 1-2 minutes. This prevents the tapioca pearls from being too tough and chewy from being cold while stored in the refrigerator.
Note 2: If you don’t care about the colour, you can leave the activated charcoal out. It will taste the same, minus the black colour. The tapioca pearls will just look more brown than black, and that’s how I would actually prefer them.
Sugar Tea Syrup
1/4 C hot water
2 T organic coconut palm sugar (or dark brown sugar)
1 bag black tea
Combine hot water, sugar, and black tea and mix well. Let tea steep for 15 minutes and then remove tea bag.
Classic Milk Tea Bubble Tea
Yield: 1 Serving
1/4 C cooked tapioca pearls (from above)
2 T sugar tea syrup (from soaking tapioca pearls)
1 bag black tea
1/2 C boiled hot water
1/2 C cold organic milk
1/2 C ice cubes
Make strong black tea by boiling hot water and adding 1 bag of black tea. Let cool to room temperature.
In a cup, first add tapioca pearls, then the sugar tea syrup, and ice cubes.
Pour cooled black tea over ice cubes and finish by adding in the cold milk.
Stick in a tall wide straw, stir and serve.