Recipe – Coconut sugar bubble tea pearls

For anyone living under a rock or have spent 40 years in an ashram in silent retreat, I  should begin by briefly explaining the phenomenon that is Bubble Tea, a Taiwanese tea drink invented in the 1980s. Simply put, it is a strong tea, flavoured with milk and sugar (these days you can select your sugar %) with optional toppings including (or should they be called bottomings?) of tapioca “pearls” (or boba as some calls it), mango pudding, grass jelly, aloe vera, sago etc.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, bubble tea shops in Singapore were among the list of businesses that were required to close due to the long lines they were continuously generating despite our current circuit breaker status (or rather, light lock-down).

This notice of closure had led to bubble tea devotees descending on bubble tea shops the night before the official closure date to order bubble teas in massive quantities (think 10 – 15 nos). Perhaps they wanted to stock up in their fridges at home and continue to have their guilty pleasure from the comfort of their own couch.

If you had googled “Bubble Tea” the day after the collective closure, you’d be greeted with a dazzling array of responses –  “12 famous bubble teas still available during this circuit breaker”, “13 bubble tea delivery options during circuit breaker”, “Get your bubble tea fix from these restaurants that also sell bubble teas with their food”.  

I always knew it was popular but I did not realize to what extent and degree of anxiety some small tapioca pearls in a cup of tea could create. Colour me surprised when I went into the local shops last week and found an abundance of tapioca starch on the shelves (unlike bread flour and tinned tomatoes which now seem to be as common as a flock of dodos) – I bought a pack half-heartedly, thinking that it may be a nice surprise for my wife if I whip up some bubble tea for her. 

Having done some development at work on different types of sugars and starches so I has some experience with tapioca pearls. However, the recipe I had on hand uses rice starch and that version was a disaster so I had no real plans for it, until today.

Cheryl has been quite blaśe about the whole bubble tea saga so I was surprised when last night (while brushing my teeth upstairs) I could hear her whispered phone conversation with her sister about which restaurants in our area are still selling it. They were chittering away like two racoons in the bushes planning an assault on the neighbourhood trash cans. Ok, looks like it’s go-time for me. Time to impress the missus and make some for her. 

Thus began my morning endeavour, making boba pearls; while surprisingly easy to do, it does require plenty of free time. I had planned on rewatch BattleStar Galactica this morning but had to shelf that plan. I recommend that you do this with a family member or two, to make the process go a little faster (doing it alone will burn about two hours of your day). This is a fun way to keep the kids entertained if they are old enough to roll the pearls and not eat every single one before they’re cooked (speaking from experience here). It is always nice to have someone to talk too when doing manual labour.

By far the most poignant piece of advice I can give to you before you attempt this is to make sure you have a bubble tea straw, you know the type – those jumbo sized straws wide enough to suck up the juicy pearls with them getting trapped like poor Nemo in the aquarium filter. Those of you reading this post, I would assume are already ardent, card carrying members of the “bubble tea or die” club so for you, I’m sure you have your own metal Boba straws at home. Otherwise it’s drinking tea with a soup spoon, which I suppose is entertaining enough in itself and was exactly the predicament we found ourselves in today.

Boba aka “the pearls

  • 50gm coconut sugar
  • 70ml water
  • 110gm tapioca starch

For the syrup

  • 250ml water
  • 120gm coconut sugar

Method

Heat the water in a saucepan and add the sugar, stirring until the sugar is completely dissolved. Add in the tapioca starch and stir (slowly you don’t want tapioca starch flying all over the kitchen). Turn off the heat and remove to a cool work surface. I’m using a marble pastry board but a counter top is perfectly acceptable.

Dissolving the sugar and water

Knead the dough for two minutes to bring it all together and make it smooth.

At the start the dough is not very smooth so requires kneading


After about 2 minutes the dough will be smooth, elastic and easy to work with.

Form into an log before separating into 4 equal parts

Roll the dough out into a log as above, then using a knife or pastry scraper , divide the rolled out log into 4 roughly equal pieces.

Rolling out the four pieces into strands

Using the palms of both your hands in a rocking motion. Roll the dough backwards and forwards, moving out from the center as you work to form 4 long stands of the dough. Dust your strands with a little of the tapioca flour and working strand by strand, cut into small pieces. Be mindful of the sizing here the pearls will swell a bit while cooking so smaller is better. Don’t get caught up with the idea of making giant pearls otherwise , even with a straw you’re going to be eating your tea with a spoon.

Cutting the strands

Roll the pieces in your hands to form a ball , dip you finger in some water and add a drop to the ball and continue to form. If there is too much tapioca flour on the segments they won’t roll properly so the drop of water helps to create some surface tension allowing you to form balls with ease.

Bring a pot of water to the roiling boil and once boiling reduce to a simmer, add your pearls and stir a few times to help prevent them from sticking together. Cook for 18 minutes.

First, cook the the pearls for 18 minutes

Remove the pearls with a slotted spoon and drop into some ice water to cool them and prevent them from cooking further

Cooling the pearls, my first batch were way to big so trust me on the smaller is better suggestion

Work in batches (cutting , rolling & cooking – 2 logs at a time) until all the pearls have been boiled and refreshed in ice water, Now on to the syrup add the water and coconut sugar to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Reduce to a simmer and place the drained boba pearls into the syrup, cooking for 25 minutes.

Cooking the Boba in the syrup

After 25 minutes the Boba aka “the pearls” will be coated in a thin treacle-like syrup ,and be tender yet slightly chewy in the centre. See below photo for the finish consistency

The finished product, Boba pearls for bubble tea

How you choose to make the tea is up to you, some people like a blend of earl grey and oolong teas, green tea. We prefer a mixture of Barry’s Irish tea and Earl Grey. Irish tea is notoriously strong so we brew ours strong enough to make your lips curl back from the tannins but the strength of your tea is your own preference.

We brew strong tea for 5 minutes on the stovetop and let it steep for another 10 minutes before removing the tea bags and pouring in the full cream milk (if you prefer it a little more sweet than you can add some sugar syrup into the milk tea before pouring it).

To assemble spoon the Boba pearls into the bottom of the heat proof or double walled glass, place some ice in the glass and pour the milk tea over.

Even though most shops use machinery to make the Boba pearls, when the bubble tea shops reopen here in Singapore I will be very happy to support them wholeheartedly as I now have a new found respect for how labor intensive this boba-making process was.

At least now the racoons have had their fill and I can have a peaceful night’s sleep, free from chittering, until the next craving strikes that is. 

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