I have a new addiction! It’s true, Dear Readers … since my visit to iSandwich recently–where I had that delicious passion-fruit smoothie … I’ve become a total tapioca and jelly bubble drink junkie!
Collectively, you find bubble drinks marketed under quite a few different names: Bubble Tea, Boba or Boba Tea, Smoothies with Pearls, Pearl Tea or Pearl-Milk Tea, Fruit Milk Tea, and more. Two different Taiwanese tea shops claim to have invented the concoction first (combining black tea, milk, sweeteners and tapioca balls, themselves called boba) back in the early 80s. It wasn’t very popular in the beginning, but–once the word got out on a local news show, accenting how fun they were to drink–bubble drinks took off like a rocket, and gradually evolved into a group of varied drink recipes that became an Asian sensation, sweeping into South Korea, China, Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and more … and in record time. As individuals from those countries traveled and ultimately relocated–bringing their food and customs with them–bubble drinks have since spread into other parts of the world, too … especially here in Asian-rich Seattle!
The concept is simple … yet–at the same time–rather strange to most Americans. Bubble drinks are a tasty liquid of some kind–often, a combination of tea, milk, fruit purees, etc.–with large tapioca balls and/or flavored fruit jells in the bottom. At tea houses, your bubble drink is often served in a tall plastic cup, topped by a solid plastic lid that’s heat-bonded to the cup … making the drink airtight. The object is to shake your tea up first–achieving the bubble portion of the drink–then you shove the big FAT straw they give you through the plastic lid to enjoy. The fat straw, easily the diameter of one of your fingers, is cut at an angle at the bottom to facilitate snapping them through the plastic lids … as well as to allow you to drink up your tapioca pearls and/or jellies from the bottom of your drink, too.
I have tons of Asian markets around me, so–after spending $3.25-$5.00 each for a few bubble drinks at local tea houses–I went looking for the stuff to make them at home instead, both instantly … and from scratch, as well. I found a limited amount of bubble drink makings at my first stop … my local 99 Ranch Market in Edmonds, WA … where they were fairly expensive. I paid $1.79/jar for one type of tapioca pearls, but the rest were all $2.50+, though I was able to buy a nice bottle of concentrated passion fruit juice that was also expensive–almost $6–but it was so nice and concentrated that it ultimately lasted through six large drinks … making it very worthwhile in my book, especially given what good passion fruit drinks cost these days. I also grabbed some large, uncooked tapioca balls, some agar-agar (which is a thickener like unflavored gelatin) and a couple of cans of coconut juice, the other main ingredient in many of the jellies themselves. I’ll experiment with them eventually, but–for now–I was still looking for more instant gratification stuff for my bubble drinks.
I hit the mother-lode at H-Mart in Lynnwood, WA, right behind Alderwood Mall. Not only did they have the big FAT straws I needed (note: they’re back in the housewares section of the store … NOT with the paper plates) … I also paid almost a $1/jar less there for various pre-made tapioca pearls and jellies, including finding a great big jar of multi-colored coconut jellies that will last me a good long time … while I experiment with how to make them myself.
Once I stocked up, I gathered up my supplies the next time Ladies Day rolled around … and treated the ladies to my favorite new treat
I started with two different types of boba/tapioca pearls, one dyed red … and one that was more of a yellow/gold. For each big 32-ounce cup, I added two teaspoons of each color pearl.
Tapioca pearls are just basically a jumbo version of the same sort of tapioca balls you buy to make tapioca pudding. They’re both made from tapioca starch, a by-product of cassava roots … aka: manioc, boba, yuca (but not yucca), sago, and more, so you may also see these names on a jar/package of large tapioca pearls too, depending on the ethnicity of the market you’re plundering. When you buy them in jars pre-made like this, they’re usually packed in a simple sugar syrup, and–often–they’re colored as well … so don’t be confused if you see several different colors offered in the same brand. Unless you specifically see something on the label that says “lychee-flavored” or some other indication that the different colors are flavored differently, too … the coloring is usually just cosmetic, allowing you to make a nice visual pairing with the tea/juice you plan to also use. Since the liquid they’re packed in is just sugar-water, you can choose to add some to your drink or not, your choice.
On top of the two different colors of tapioca pearls, I started adding cubes of different jellies to the mix: first, a bright red version marked strawberry-flavored … and then a bright yellow version that claimed to be packed in mango juice.
Most of these jellies are made from coconut water/juice/milk–some with shreds of young coconut included, just for the texture–that’s combined with agar-agar and flavoring. Once the jellies set, they’re cut into cubes and and packed into jars of simple syrup, just like the pearls. You can find jellies in all sorts of flavors, but be sure you’re getting a “jelly” when you choose it at an Asian market … not a “jelly belly” or a “gummy.” You’ll find all three in a good Asian market, but jelly-bellies and gummies are two VERY different things.
In addition to buying jellies in jars of syrup, you can also buy Asian jellies in little single-serving packages … that come in a wide variety of flavors. Below, you see me cutting up one of those individual jellies into little cubes to go into our fancy bubble drinks!
The little individual jellies are a common Asian snack food. You can buy bags, tubs, or even decorative containers filled with various flavors: mango, lychee, apple, and grape being some of the more common ones. When I was researching them, I discovered that the ones imported into America are usually made softer than the ones consumed in Asian countries. Why? you ask. I did, too … and I found the story quite interesting.
The little tubs are designed for you to zip the top off–just like you do with those individual-sized tubs of dipping sauces or jam/jelly/preserves in restaurants–and then you slurp the jelly down in one slurp. The problem is, most Asians expected the jelly to be very firm … because that’s what they’re used to … but most Americans see the word “jelly” and automatically assume it’s going to be soft. The problem happened when Americans saw Asians slurping them down–tried to imitate the behavior themselves–and instantly choked on the harder lump of jelly when they wedged it in their throats. It apparently happened enough that the importers and manufacturers decided to make the version shipped here somewhat softer, just to protect us from ourselves 😎
By the time I got finished putting bubble drinks together for the ladies, I’d added all sorts of stuff … starting from here:
… and ending up here, with 1-2 inches of tasty treats in the bottom of our 32-ounce cups. From there, I added about the same amount of ice.
NOTE: don’t fill the cup with ice! This drink is best very cool … but not COLD! Use just use enough ice to chill your drink down … not water it down!
On top of the ice, it was time for a couple of spoonfuls of thick, unsweetened coconut milk, the kind you’d use in curry … not the sweet stuff you use in pina coladas.
Aren’t those layers pretty?
From there, I added about two inches of the concentrated passion fruit juice.
By this time, our bubble drinks were beginning to smell MARVELOUS!
I topped them off with very cold water, then stirred them well before adding lids and fat straws to complete them.
How’d they come out, you ask?
Needless to say, I loved mine … and slurped it down, pearls and jellies included! That particular brand of passion fruit concentrate is definitely on my shopping list from now on! It’s awesome! One of the other ladies wasted no time drinking hers down, too … so I’d say it’s a safe bet that she enjoyed it as well. However, our third friend was just not quite as thrilled with them as we were. She said her daughters (both young, with lots of Asian friends) had let her taste one before, but that the little bits of stuff floating in the bottom–and the fact that you had to chew part of your drink–was just too weird for her texture-wise. I have my own issues with certain food textures, so I can respect that totally … even though I personally think she’s missing out on one of the great new foods of this decade!
The only thing I didn’t like about making my own bubble drink was the texture of the jarred tapioca pearls. The jellies were perfect in the jars/tubs, but the pre-made pearls were definitely not as good! Fresh-made–like the ones you get at the various tea shops around here–they’re chewy and smooth-textured … but the ones in the jars were grainy instead. Honestly, they tasted like they’d tried to cook the large pearls “in the jar” during the canning process. I would have probably tried it, too, given what the heat of canning might do to those tapioca starch granules. They just missed, unfortunately … and left the granules uncooked in the middle Granted, I can respect them at least trying. It’s got to wreak havoc on tapioca pearls when you cook them first and THEN try to can them safely. They’d probably turn into mush, but these were grainy in the middle … almost to the point of still being crunchy. I don’t know (because I can’t read the instructions on the label) that maybe the jarred version suggests some heat/cook it more when you open the jar. All I know is … they’re just not as tasty in the jar as they are elsewhere,
Next time … I make my own pearls and jellies! Stay tuned!