A humid summer day, skies beating sunshine into your skin, and all you desire is a cool drink to tame the heat. You walk into your local coffee shop: Iced Mocha? Nah. Frozen Hammerhead? Chilled Chai? Wrong again. You put in an order for Pearl Tea and wait. Three minutes later your palate is quenched by this quizzical concoction of tea, non-dairy creamer and tapioca.
Tapioca? First ginseng, then cake-in-a-jar, and now this? It may be hard to believe that America’s newest thirst trend includes gelatinous balls circulating among the icy waters, but don’t knock it until you’ve had the experience. If you can get past the fact that you’re chewing a beverage, you’ll be hooked.
But how does one come to find tapioca in their tea in the first place? Most likely you’ll recall mixing the most obnoxious ingredients during your youth: iced tea and milk, Doritos and cheese steak, Shasta and Up-Rite. That same curiosity caused an anonymous tea seller in Taiwan to turn tapioca into transglobal temptation.
Legend has it that one crafty concession operator began blending fruit with tea to serve legions of school children in the mid-1980s. The unique twist caused bubbles to form, thus the popular pseudonym “Bubble Tea” (the drink also goes under Boba, Zhen Zhou Nai Cha, Peal Milk, BBT and Tapioca Ball Drink).
After trying numerous combinations, the inventive individual turned to a recent acquisition in Taiwan: tapioca balls. A granular substance obtained by heating the moistened starch of cassava root, the little beads were introduced nationwide by Liu Han-Chah in 1983. Nicknamed “boba” because they supposedly have the have the same texture as female breasts, others liken the feeling to Jell-O and chewing gum.
“We have definite addicts,” says Peter Ng, manager of St. Alp’s Teahouse at 3rd Ave. and 11th St. in New York City. “Sometimes we sell out of tapioca by evening, and people are upset when they come in and we don’t have any more.”
St. Alp’s knows all about addiction: One of the first companies on the East Coast to offer Pearl Tea, their 50-plus businesses make them trendsetters in this industry. Importing ingredients directly from Taiwan, including fructose—which Ng says is a much tastier and healthier option than conventional sugar—they’re making sure Westerners experience the real deal.
Unlike most beverages, Pearl Tea requires patience to produce. Most shops cook their own tapioca, which can take a few hours each morning. Once the balls are prepared, they’re mixed with creamer (powdered creamer, half-and-half or milk), flavor (powder, syrups, puree or fresh fruit), sweetener (sugar, simple sugar syrup, fructose or honey), and liquid (water, tea or milk), leaving an endless array of options to be explored.
“Like coffee, it’
Bubble Tea is an extremely versatile drink. Once you have the basics down, play with your creations to suit your tastes. You can substitute milk, cream, half n half, sweetened and condensed milk, and soy milk instead of non-dairy creamer. You can use tea or water for the powder drinks, or blend with ice to make a smoothie. Play with the sugar syrup recipe or use pre-made syrup like fructose or simple Hawaiian cane sugar. The recipe and photos have been provided by bubbleteasupply.com, where you can read about the entire process of making incredible tasting pearl tea!
Pearl Milk Tea
This can be made with black, green, oolong, chai, or yerba mate. The most popular are black and green jasmine.
3/4 cup tea
1 Scoop non-dairy powder creamer
1 Scoop sugar syrup
1 cup ice
2 fl. oz. of cooked tapioca pearls
Put hot tea, creamer and sugar syrup in shaker and mix well. Add in ice, cover shaker and shake for a nice froth. Add tapioca pearls to a cup, and pour your drink over. Put in your big fat bubble tea straw and enjoy.