I don’t know what you call this stuff, but I’ve finally converted to calling it boba. All my UCLA friends made fun of me for calling it PMT (pearl milk tea), since apparently that’s just a Palo Alto thing, but I’ve been in SoCal so long that now I default to boba. Pearl milk tea makes sense, since the tapioca balls are the pearls, and they’re in milk tea. But the tapioca balls are also called boba, so I guess that makes sense too. However, I guess the rest of the US calls it bubble tea and that’s just weird. What part of boba is like a bubble? Maybe the fact that they’re round. Are they hollow? No. Can you pop them? No. Anyway, whether you call it boba, pmt, bubble tea, pearl drink, or something different altogether, it’s delicious. This surprisingly refreshing combination of tea, milk, and chewy, sweet tapioca pearls has a special place in my heart. However, it’s getting more expensive around here (Often over $4 a drink? Really?!), so I’ve resorted to making it myself. It turns out to be a lot easier than I expected, and really tasty, since you can customize it to your exact preferences.
The hardest thing about making this is perfecting the pearls. I made these quite a few times before finding the optimal cooking ranges. Trial and error! I cooked some too little, so they were hard and chewy in the middle, and I cooked some too much, so they were soft and stuck to your teeth. But I think now I’ve figured out how to do it best. There’s a range, depending on how you like your pearls, but since you’re cooking it yourself, you can adjust as necessary! That’s the beauty of making it at home. Also important, use the pearls within a few hours of cooking, or they’ll get hard. Until you use them, leave them soaking in the simple syrup. They’ll just get sweeter and more delicious!
As for buying the pearls, I found mine at Ranch 99, the nearest Chinese supermarket to my home. It was something like $4.99 for 2.2 pounds of dried tapioca pearls, or 2.99 for 1 pound. They came in options of black or rainbow, and I opted for black, since the pearls they have in boba cafes are always of the black variety. I got the 2.2 pound package, because they were the better deal. Obviously. Also, you can never have too much boba.
Anyway, the tea is also cheap at Ranch 99, so I got myself some osmanthus tea, which I discovered was actually gui hua, a fragrant tree we have in our backyard. I only ever knew the Chinese name for it, so I was happy to find out that this fragrant flower yielded a subtly fragrant and refreshing tea. I also have learned to appreciate jasmine green tea, so I picked up a box of that as well, and I have made boba with both of these tea varieties. Play around with it, and find a tea that you like! Here’s the recipe I follow, roughly.
Homemade Boba (Pearl Milk Tea, Bubble Tea)
adapted from The Kitchn
Makes 1 serving, multiply as necessary
¼-⅓ cup dry black tapioca pearls (I use ⅓ but you can increase or decrease depending on your pearl to drink ratio preference)
¼ cup honey
¼ cup + 2 tbsp granulated sugar
⅓ cup hot water
1-2 tea bags of your choice, depending on how strong you like your tea (my favorites are osmanthus tea and jasmine tea)
¾ cup hot, almost boiling water
½ cup (or to taste) milk of your choice (I used soymilk)
In a measuring cup or bowl, combine the honey, ¼ cup of sugar, and hot water. The water just has to be hot enough to make a simple syrup, and this can also be achieved by adding cold water and microwaving and stirring until the honey and sugar dissolve.
Place the tapioca pearls in a pot and add enough water to have about an 2 inches above the level of the pearls. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, stirring so the pearls don’t stick to the bottom, and boil for 5 minutes. Decrease heat to medium, add the extra 2 tablespoons of sugar, and simmer for 7-12 minutes. Do 7 if you prefer more chewy pearls, 12 if you prefer them super soft. Remember that when added to a cold drink, they will harden up a little bit, so cook them to be a little softer than you want in your drink, taste-testing encouraged!
In the meantime, steep your tea bag(s) in the almost boiling water. As the pearls cook, the tea will steep and cool. If you are making a warm drink, wait to do this step until about 5 minutes before you are done soaking the pearls.
After the pearls are cooked to your preference, drain the pearls and place in the simple syrup mixture. Allow the pearls to soak for at least 10 minutes, but the longer they sit, the more sweetness they will soak in.
Pour the cooled tea into a pint glass, then add the pearls, along with some of the simple syrup. Add the milk to taste, then sweeten with simple syrup to taste. If you desire a colder drink, add ice to the glass. Place a straw in and enjoy your homemade boba!
Tip: Next time you buy boba, take a few extra straws, so for every time you splurge out, you can enjoy your own homemade variety at home a few times! Or you can use a spoon to scoop out the pearls, but it’s not quite the same experience.