I am a sucker for bubble tea. (If you also enjoy bubble tea, YOU WILL GET THAT PUN.) Regardless, I probably spend $15/week on bubble tea, which is way too much when I could easily go out for a pretty good $15 meal. So, I thought I’d try making my own bubble tea.
For the uninitiated, bubble tea was made popular in Taiwan in the 1980s. It’s simply made of hot or iced tea with milk or flavorings, and tapioca “bubbles” are added for texture. The bubbles are firm but chewy, almost like a softer Swedish fish (fun fact: Swedish fish are made in Canada). I personally enjoy Thai iced tea, which is a red tea usually heavily sweetened and served with condensed milk. It’s creamy, sweet, and delicious, and if I wasn’t drinking it right now, I’d be jonesing for it real bad.
In order to make my Thai iced tea with bubbles, I checked out this Thai Tea Recipe I found on Google. I’ve not tried any other recipes, but this one does the thing, so I’ve stuck with it. It calls for 3/4 cup of sugar for 4 cups of tea, which was a bit much for me, and I now cut it down to 1/2 cup when I make it. I also use lactose-free whole milk, since I’m lactose intolerant, but you can use what you want. I’ve been using the Pantai Norasingh brand of dry Thai tea mix. I’ve seen some recipes that make the tea from scratch, such as in Alton Brown’s cookbook, but I don’t have time for that (and seriously I’m not buying a pound of anise seeds for this). In any case, to each their own, and you can rock this however you want.
Right around the time I wanted to make this tea, one of my sisters happened to send me this awesome party pack of dried tapioca balls and straws from Amazon. Again, this is the only brand I’ve ever tried, so there might be better ones out there, but this is my jam right now. I’ve only made the black tapioca bubbles, so I can only offer suggestions on those. The instructions on the back of the package say to cook the tapioca for 2-3 minutes at medium heat, then 2-3 minutes after you turn the burner off. (P.S.: I have an electric stove, so I’m not sure how my cooking process might differ from a gas one.) I cook the tapioca for 3 minutes on medium, then shut off the heat and keep cooking them for another 3 minutes. I tried 2 minutes and 2.5 minutes for each step, but they just don’t come out chewy enough. I use one of those fancy spoons with the design holes in it to scoop the tapioca out into a small bowl of cold water, then into a dry bowl to sprinkle with a little bit of sugar (less than a teaspoon for 1/2 cup of tapioca). After that, they’re good to go. It’s also a good idea to only make exactly as much of the tapioca bubbles as you’re going to eat right away, or they get weird. (For one Mason jar of bubble tea, I make 1/4 cup of bubbles.)
Returning to the tea for a minute for some notes. The problem with this particular dry tea is that it has a lot of tiny leaves that invariably end up in your drink, and it’s unpleasant. I’ve tried a couple methods for getting the tea leaves out. All of these methods involve putting the straining apparatus inside of a funnel, which is then placed in a pitcher (which is actually a Brita pitcher without the water filter thing).
- Pour the tea through a metal mesh strainer. The strainer we had looked like this: The reason I say “had” is because I was trying to press some more liquid out of the tea leaves aaaaaaand I broke it. This worked pretty well, but there was still a lot that managed to get through, even before I broke it.
- Pour the tea into a coffee filter. I really thought this would be a good idea since this is basically what coffee filters are made for, but it didn’t work. The tea would drip through for about 30 seconds and then it would…stop. We did some tests with just tap water and that went through just fine, so I think the problem was the sugar. I think the tea was just too sticky and viscous with the sugar in it to properly pass through the filter.
- Pour the tea into a tea strainer. The one I have looks like this: because I’m a filthy hipster and I bought this in Ithaca, NY, and that whole town never really left the 1960s. This was, surprisingly, the best option. It looks like there are a lot of holes in the weave, but when it gets wet, the material expands a bit and doesn’t let much through that’s not liquid. I did have to empty it out pretty often, since it’s only meant for a tablespoon of tea leaves and not a cup, but that was a small price to pay.
I usually go to Sencha for bubble tea a couple times a week, and I get Thai iced tea there probably once a week. This bubble tea doesn’t taste exactly the same, but it is pretty darn close. Plus, when you consider that all of the ingredients for this recipe (sugar, dry tea, tapioca, milk) together cost about $30, and the bag of dry tea makes about 18 cups of tea, that makes each cup of tea cost about $1.67 as opposed to $5.00. EPIC SAVINGS. It tastes close enough to the Sencha version that I can placate myself, which is all I want. That being said, it does kind of leave a cloying sweet taste in my mouth for a while, but that’s probably my fault. I definitely couldn’t drink it all day. It also packs a lot of caffeine (at least for me), so that’s sort of a good thing/bad thing. Yum factor: 7/10
This is pretty middle-of-the-road as far as the difficulty goes. It’s not hard to mix sugar and tea leaves into water, but straining the tea is kind of a bother. Meh. You can put the whole thing together in less than an hour if you neglect the chilling time. Ease of making: 4/10
Final bit of info: THAI TEA STAINS EVERYTHING.