Instead of popping champagne at my wedding, I toasted with boba.
The sweet treat transports me back home, not only to California where my parents live, but also to Taiwan, my mom’s birthplace. Rather than going out for coffee, my favorite pastime is dropping in for boba at my favorite shop. It’s how I bond with family and friends.
I’m not alone. This year, boba – also known as bubble tea, tapioca tea or pearl milk tea – was added as one of the new official emoji.
Finding my favorite boba shop used to be a way of curing my homesickness, whenever I’d move to a new city. I’d seek out shops that took the time and care to make their boba drinks the right way, brewing their tea from leaves and not powders, which can leave that telltale artificial aftertaste.
When the coronavirus pandemic forced many bubble tea shops to shutter, I found myself craving something I couldn’t easily have.
So, I resorted to something I probably would never have done otherwise: I made my own boba, the small, chewy balls – often dyed black – found at the bottom of the bubble tea. The balls are made from tapioca, a gluten-free starch.
I first tried boiling store-bought boba, but instead of chewy morsels, I ended up with a big goopy mess. So, I decided to make the balls from scratch and was pleased to find it was pretty easy.
Taiwanese food is all about texture, and ideal tapioca balls should be al dente. This chewiness is called “qq” and can be off-putting for some. I liken it to adding gummy bears to your drink.
It doesn’t take much to make boba – just tapioca flour, water, sugar and the optional food coloring. Rolling the sticky gum-like dough into many tiny balls does take time. (Leftover flour can be used as a thickening agent, for stir-frys or pudding, as one would use cornstarch.)
Traditional tapioca balls contain Taiwanese black sugar, which lends a deep caramel flavor. It is sold in blocks at Asian grocery stores. It can be hard to find, so I used brown sugar instead, and loved the results.
It’s important to soak the boba in a liquid, such as a simple syrup made with sugar and water. For extra flavor, some suggest soaking the balls in dark rum or even whiskey.
If you don’t want to dye your boba black or use artificial food coloring, but desire a different color and/or flavor, try an equivalent amount of matcha, hibiscus, turmeric, or pandan or ube extracts in place of the brown sugar.
For the drink itself, you can add the balls to anything you enjoy, from spiked smoothies to plain tea, cold or hot. I prefer hot boba drinks, because the tapioca gets even chewier.
To make a strong tea, use about a teaspoon of loose leaves, or two to three bags, per cup. Then, add milk and/or sugar to taste. I usually add just enough dairy to make my drink opaque. You can also use creamer, condensed milk or sugar syrup, if you like, then, add 20 or so balls per serving and enjoy.
Because boiled boba have a short shelf-life, boil only those balls you plan to consume immediately – any extra will get crusty and hard. The remaining uncooked tapioca balls can be frozen for the next time you need a pick-me-up. Nobody will judge you if, like me, it’s every day.
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HOMEMADE BUBBLE TEA (BOBA)
Active: 1 hour 30 minutes | Total: 2 hours
5 to 6 servings
These tapioca balls let you enjoy boba, also called bubble tea, tapioca tea or pearl milk tea, at home. Leave them natural, or dye them any color you like. Use the sugar syrup to infuse the boba with sweetness, as well as to sweeten your drink. Add about 20 balls to a cup of strong tea, with milk and sweetener to taste. If you’re short on time, just roll out the tapioca dough ropes and cut them into pieces small enough to fit through the boba straw and skip the rolling process. You won’t get the exact look, but the final product will taste and feel the same.
The counter will get very sticky from the tapioca flour; scrub it with a damp kitchen towel for easiest cleaning.
Make Ahead: If you prefer your boba cold, brew the tea up to 1 day ahead, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled. The syrup needs to be refrigerated for at least 1 hour before serving.
Storage Notes: The syrup can be refrigerated for up to 1 week. The leftover tapioca balls can be frozen for up to 2 weeks.
FOR THE SYRUP
1 cup (240 milliliters) water
1 cup (200 grams) granulated sugar
1 cup (200 grams) lightly packed light or dark brown sugar
FOR THE BUBBLE TEA
6 tablespoons light or dark brown sugar
1/4 cup (60 milliliters) water, plus more as needed
1/4 teaspoon black food coloring (optional)
1/2 cup (70 grams) tapioca flour or tapioca starch, divided, plus more for dusting and as needed
5 to 6 cups (1220 to 1440 milliliters) strong black or green tea, hot or chilled
Cream, milk or condensed milk, to taste (optional)
Make the syrup: In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine the water with the granulated and brown sugars and stir until the mixture dissolves. Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature. Transfer the syrup to a 2-cup plastic or glass container, cover and refrigerate at least 1 hour, or until thoroughly chilled.
Make the tapioca balls: In a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the brown sugar and water and, stirring constantly, bring to a rolling boil. Add the food coloring, if using, and stir to combine, then add 1/4 cup (35 grams) of tapioca flour and stir vigorously with a large metal spoon until a very sticky paste forms. It’s OK if the paste is lumpy.
Remove from the heat and stir in the remaining tapioca flour, until thoroughly combined.
Sprinkle some tapioca flour onto a clean, dry counter and transfer the paste onto the floured surface. (The easiest way to do this is by scooping the paste with a metal spoon and using a silicone spatula to push the paste onto the counter.) Let the paste cool until it can be handled, about 5 minutes.
Knead the paste until dough-like and form it into a ball. The paste will be very sticky, so keep it well floured. Work out as many of the lumps as possible. If the paste is too dry and crusty, add cold water, 1 teaspoon at a time. If it’s too wet, add more flour, 1 teaspoon at a time. The paste should spring back when gently poked with a finger.
Separate the paste into three equal pieces, and roll each piece into logs slightly less than 1/4-inch wide. Dust the logs with tapioca flour and cut the dough evenly, into cubes slightly less than 1/4-inch wide.
Roll the each cube between the palms of your hands to form small balls. If the dough is too dry and difficult to shape, lightly dampen your hands first. Once the balls are formed, coat them with a thin dusting of tapioca flour to prevent them from sticking together.
Fill a medium pot three-quarters of the way with water and, over high heat, bring to a rolling boil.
Using either a fine-mesh strainer or your hand, shake the excess flour off the tapioca balls and drop the balls into the boiling water (you’ll need 20 balls per serving). Gently stir with a metal spoon to make sure the balls do not stick together, and boil until the balls float to the top and become translucent, 10 to 12 minutes.
Drain the tapioca balls and briefly rinse with cold, running water so they don’t stick together. Transfer the balls to a clean jar and use enough of the chilled sugar syrup to submerge them. Allow to soak for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
To make the bubble tea, add about 20 balls per 1 cup of strong, brewed tea. Serve hot or cold and with cream, milk, condensed milk or additional sugar syrup, if desired. (If you prefer your bubble tea cold, brew the tea in advance, and refrigerate until thoroughly chilled.)
Ingredients are too variable for a meaningful nutrition analysis.
(Adapted from Kung Fu Tea, cookinginchinglish.com and Bubble Tea Supply.)