Saturday, July 2, 2016

Celebrate the 4th with Fireworks and Bubbles
What’s cooking? Bubble Tea

2015 Fireworks in Jersey City, with NYC Freedom Tower at far left

What’s as much fun as fireworks? Bubbles. In fact, it feels like a natural sort of pairing: sparkles and bubbles. So let me introduce you to bubble tea.

Also known as pearl milk tea, boba milk tea, or just boba – bubble tea is a mixture of tea with milk, fruit flavoring and tapioca “bubbles.” It’s become increasingly popular among the under-30 crowd, with bubble tea cafes popping up in cities from Miami to Anchorage. And I read in the Huffington Post that McDonald’s now sells bubble tea, in Germany of all places. This is a global phenomenon, folks.

I first discovered bubble tea through a darling young Filipino friend who is wild for the stuff. She got some at a small shop in New Jersey, and gave me a taste. I liked it, and filed it away in my mental food encyclopedia as an interesting gimmick but not likely to take the place of Starbucks as my drink du jour. It didn’t occur to me that I might be able to make it myself.

Then I was asked to bring the dessert for an Asian-inspired dinner party. You may remember that I wrote about serving those molten chocolate cakes with a hit of Chinese five-spice powder and green tea ice cream. But I wanted to have fun with the dessert, and on my shelves, I discovered a book called The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts. Amazing what you can find in your own house. The writer, Pichet Ong, has been the pastry chef for a number of world-class restaurants, so I wandered into the index, where I found... three recipes for bubble tea.

So in a fit of pushing the envelope to complicate my life just a bit more, I added a small serving of bubble tea to each of the plates. And even though the guests were all over-30, they liked it!

It was a lot easier than I thought it would be, which is why you’re reading about it here. Okay, I’d have written about it even if it had been ridiculously hard. But now you have to try it.

What is tapioca? Like the Kitchen Goddess, you may have warm memories of tapioca pudding from your childhood. Frankly, I’d have happily eaten it warm, cold, or room temp. And I’m pretty sure mine was Minute Tapioca, in keeping with my mother’s fascination with all things instant. So maybe it’s those chewy little tapioca balls that took me down the bubble tea path.

According to Wikipedia (and where would I be without thee?), tapioca is a starch, extracted from the root of the cassava plant. It’s ground and dried into a powder resembling corn starch, and from there processed into sticks, flakes, and pearls.

The bubble tea concept originated as a Taiwanese drink in the 1980s: a combination of hot Taiwanese dark tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed milk, and various types of sweetener. Over the years, it has morphed into a mostly cold drink, with variations using green tea, whole milk or coconut milk, large black tapioca pearls, fruit flavors, and some presentations that eschew tea altogether.

Coconut milk (lite) and small tapioca pearls
Kitchen Goddess note: As simple as it is to make, the only challenge is in finding the tapioca beads. I got the small (about ⅛-inch diameter) tapioca pearls in the bulk foods aisle of my local semi-gourmet grocery in Texas, but I’m pretty sure you can find them at any Asian grocery. Same with the large black tapioca pearls, the other type most commonly used in bubble tea. Large pearls are easier to find pre-packaged in the Asian foods aisle.

It may be that the texture is the best part of the drink. The bubbles are mildly chewy – harder than a marshmallow, softer than a gummy bear – with a neutral taste that can swing toward a fruit flavor if you cook them in juice instead of water. If that sounds unattractive to you, I say try it before you decide. And it’s really fun to drink. You must use a fat straw for the full experience: hoovering up the bubbles through the straw one by one is fun and tickles your mouth just slightly.

For the types of bubble tea here, it’s a three-step process: (1) make the fruit slushie (and the tea, if you’re using tea); (2) cook the boba (tapioca pearls – but I’m just going to call them boba because it’s less typing); and (3) combine the ingredients. The variations below should give you a start on concocting your own bubble teas, in a sort of Chinese menu style – one from column A, etc. You can play with proportions to your heart’s content. Just make sure to serve it well chilled. In fact, it’s a great idea to freeze the fruit before puréeing, to get a really good chill. And slurping with the straw at the bottom of the glass is absolutely acceptable.

Kitchen Goddess note on storing boba: They say that cooked boba should be used within 24 hours, but I’ve had some in my fridge for 4 days now and they’re still delicious. Sometimes I store mine in the coconut milk/sugar combo. But if you don’t plan to use coconut milk, you can store the cooked boba in simple syrup (½ cup sugar dissolved in ½ cup water and heated to a boil). Cool the simple syrup to room temp before adding it to the boba. Definitely hang onto any boba you don’t use, in case you get a late-night need for bubble tea.

Teas (optional): Taiwanese black tea, green tea, red zinger tea, or any other tea you like
Puréed Fruit (optional): strawberries, any kind of melon (honeydew is one of the most popular), kiwi, peach, mango, papaya (You can use grapes, blueberries, raspberries if you take the time to strain out the skins/seeds from the purée, but that’s way more trouble than the KG is up for.)
Milk: coconut milk (light), almond milk, non-dairy creamer, cow’s milk (whole, low-fat, fat-free), soy milk, or ice cream (!)
Boba (cooked): small white pearls, large black pearls

Melon Bubble Tea

Adapted from The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts, by Pichet Ong

Makes 8 medium-sized servings.

4 cups chopped, ripe melon (cantaloupe, honeydew, or other)
⅛ teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons sugar
juice of ½ lime
1 cup small tapioca pearls
9 ounces unsweetened coconut milk

In a blender, place the melon, the salt, 2 tablespoons of the sugar, and the lime juice. Purée well – 1-2 minutes. Chill.

Bring 8 cups of water to a rolling boil. Add the tapioca pearls and stir well. When the water returns to a rolling boil, reduce the heat just enough to maintain a good simmer. Stir every 1-2 minutes so the boba don’t clump or stick to the bottom of the pan. Continue to simmer and stir the boba for 18-20 minutes, until the white centers are reduced to tiny dots. (They will continue to cook even after draining, eventually becoming clear globules.)

Boba after 2 minutes simmering.
Boba after 15 minutes simmering. Almost there.
Drain the boba. Rinse well in cold water and drain again. Combine the boba in a bowl with the coconut milk and remaining tablespoon of sugar and stir well to keep boba from clumping. Refrigerate the boba until ready to use. (They say boba are best used within 24 hours, but I’m still enjoying some I made four days ago.)

Pour the melon purée into eight glasses and top each with 2 tablespoons of the boba mix. Add fat straws and tell your guests to stir well before drinking.

Boba ready to use... or store in the fridge.

And now that you have a stash of prepared boba, try this one:

Strawberry-Red Zinger Bubble Tea

The quantities here (Quantities? What quantities?!) are pretty loosey-goosey, depending on the number of servings you want and your tastes. Use the recipe above as a guide, and experiment. I like any recipe that asks me to taste frequently!

lemon juice (freshly squeezed)
pinch of salt
Red Zinger tea, chilled
boba in coconut milk (lite)

Purée strawberries with a pinch of salt, and sugar and lemon juice to taste. Chill well. Combine equal parts strawberry purée with the tea, and divide into glasses. Add 2 tablespoons coconut milk boba to each glass and stir. Don’t forget the fat straws!

* * *

You know, I said to myself, “Don’t start down this road,” but apparently, I can’t be stopped. I made another bubble tea for you, from blueberries, which I already warned you against because you need to strain the seeds out. So did I listen to my own advice? No. And a good thing, too, because it’s delicious, and the boba sit right on top for this one, looking like a bit of modern art.

Blueberry-Black Tea Bubble Tea

Makes four 5-ounce servings, or one big one if you decide to drink it all yourself, which you may be tempted to do. This one is just thick enough to serve as bubble tea with a straw, or as a cold soup, with spoons.

1½ cups blueberries, frozen
juice of ½ lemon
pinch of salt
2 tablespoons sugar
1 cup tea, made from Asian black tea, chilled
8 tablespoons boba in coconut milk (lite)

Purée the blueberries with the lemon juice, salt, and sugar. Pour the mix through a medium-grade sieve to remove most of the seeds/skin. (You’ll need to scrape it through the sieve; but don’t kill yourself on that part – just enough to separate out the really pulpy part. I ended up with just under a full cup of purée.)

Combine the purée with an equal amount of tea, and divide the mix into 4 small glasses or bowls (in case you want to try it as a cold soup). Spoon 2 tablespoons of the boba/coconut milk mix on top of each, and serve with fat straws or spoons. Encourage your guests to stir well before drinking.

And have a fun 4th of July!


  1. We didn't tapioca in our house, when growing up. In fact, I have only had tapioca pudding once in my life, and did not care for it. HOWEVER, you have made bubble tea sound pretty irresistible! A must try!
    Eileen in Atlanta

    1. I do hope you'll try it, Eileen. It's a fun treat, and really easy.