Bubble Tea Recipe

By Amy Darvill

Bubble tea has become an extremely popular drink worldwide, where people not only enjoy the beverage but also buy merchandise featuring the item. I've seen plush toys, t-shirts, bags, you name it, emblazoned with cutesy little cups of bubble tea. But where did this fanciful drink come from? And what even is it?

Well, the what is both simple and complex. The simple version is tea and milk blended together, usually over ice, and at the bottom of the cup are large black tapioca pearls. The complex is the sheer amount of variation out there. Black tea, green tea, coffee, etc. Then for milk, you can have regular cow milk or any variation of plant-based milks out there. The tapioca pearls can come flavored, or even be swapped out for jellies or popping boba or more. Some places will even put cheese foam on top. And that's not the end of the customization possible. It's a whole world unto itself!

This world got its start in the 1980s in Taiwan. Now that's as far as we can be sure, though many places lay claim to being the first to start it. But when you look at the fact that adding milk and sugar to tea has been around since the 1600s and shaved ice and tapioca desserts were popular snacks at the time, the fusion was bound to happen. One popular story of how it originated was that Lin Hsiu Hu added the tapioca pearl dessert she had into her drink, either because she had missed a childhood treat, or was just experimenting. She shared it with some of her colleagues, who also thought it was delicious and they added it to their menu at Chun Shui Tang tea room. Another popular tale is that Tu Tsong-He saw some white tapioca balls in a nearby marketplace. Inspired, he decided to add them to his tea drinks. He named them 'pearl milk tea' because the tapioca balls looked like pearls in the drink. (The more common black or brown that we see today is colored with brown sugar or food dye.)

Regardless of its humble beginnings, it has grown into a craze today. They even now make boba pizzas in some places! (And you know you've made it big as a food item if you're added to a pizza.) And while I might have scared you off with the customizations, it's pretty simple to make at home. (Please get an adult for any cooking elements if you're underage; we don't want you to burn yourself!)

Basic Bubble Tea Recipe (Makes 4 drinks)


8 bags of black tea or 3 tablespoons loose-leaf black tea (because you're mixing it with milk, you need very strong tea or else you'll lose the taste)
4 cups hot water
3/4 cup quick-cooking tapioca pearls (found at most Asian supermarkets or online)
whole milk to serve (or your choice of milk)
simple syrup to serve (or your choice of sweetener)

For the Simple Syrup

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar

Start with steeping your tea with the 4 cups of hot water (borderline boiling hot). While the ice will cool it, I personally like to make it in advance and let it cool. If you're doing this, mix in your sweetener of choice while the tea is still hot — it dissolves into the tea better. (The simple syrup will blend hot or cold, so feel free to ignore if you use that.)

If using simple syrup, add both ingredients to a pot and bring it to a boil and stir until the sugar dissolves and then let it cool. Once cooled, transfer to a container until you're ready to use it.

Now you make your tapioca pearls. The packaging will have instructions, but here's what I do. Bring a pot of water to boil (have it be about half full). When it's boiling, add the pearls and wait for them to come back to the surface while stirring. Once they come to the surface, let them cook for anywhere from 2-5 minutes (they get softer the longer they cook), checking them as you go. Once done, put them in an ice bath (a bowl of cold water and ice) to stop the cooking. I usually let them sit for about 30 seconds to a minute in this, and then I add them to another bowl and sweeten them. The syrup is most common, but you can use sugar, honey, etc.

Now you have all your components. First divide the pearls between four glasses, then add a couple of ice cubes to each glass. Pour in roughly 1 cup of tea in each cup, then add milk and sweetener of choice to taste. (I personally shoot for an even mix of tea and milk since it's milk tea.) Add in an extra-wide straw (either an actual boba straw or a wide smoothie straw) so that you can drink the pearls up along with the drink and enjoy!