Julia Stephan

Editor at Kitchen Stories

When the bubble tea trend was back at its peak, I was quite skeptical of the thousands of shops that I felt opened in no time at all. I didn’t want to hear about "crazy pearls" in my tea. I wasn't even interested in the heated discussion here in Germany around the on-trend drink: According to a study, carcinogenic substances were supposed to be in the pearls. The trend ebbed faster than you could say bubble tea, although later the statement was proven wrong— more on this later.

A few weeks ago, around the editorial table, we asked ourselves what had become of all these shops? As it turns out, many of them still exist here (even very successfully) and there are still big bubble tea fans in our team who told tales of the tea's long-lasting popularity in other parts of the world.

The longer I researched this article, the more interesting it became for me and when I finally drank my very first bubble tea, I asked myself: Why not sooner? Today, we'll clear up all your questions and concerns about bubble tea and show you how to make your very own bubble tea at home.

What is bubble tea?

Where does it come from?

Bubble tea, also known as "boba", "boba tea", "pearl milk tea", or "bubble milk tea" was invented in Taiwan in the 1980s and quickly rose to popularity. At that time, however, there were no pearls in the drink, only sweetened tea in combination with fruit syrup or milk.

The classic bubble tea is made of sweetened black tea, milk, and ice cubes shaken in a cocktail shaker until foamy. This foam, by the way, is responsible for the name "bubble tea", and not the globules that ended up in it later.

What is bubble tea made of?

First of all, every bubble tea needs a base ingredient—usually a cooled down tea. However, there are also variants based on coconut water or even smoothies. This base can also be topped up with milk or syrup, if desired.

But what makes bubble tea the drink we know and love (or hate) are the so-called toppings for which you need the equally strikingly large straw. Yes, we're talking about the infamous 'pearls' in bubble tea.

The most famous and classic among these are tapioca pearls. Tapioca is a starch that has almost no taste of its own and is made from dried cassava roots. It's almost ironic that bubble tea has such an unhealthy reputation, while the cassava root itself is experiencing considerable hype as a 'superfood.'

Besides tapioca pearls there are also jelly pieces and "popping boba", small fruit balls whose refreshing fruit juice 'explodes' in the mouth when you bite into them.

Is bubble tea healthy?

The reputation for unhealthy, sugary bubble tea is widespread, but not necessarily true. As we have already learned, the classic version consists of tea, milk and tapioca pearls— ingredients that we certainly wouldn't call unhealthy.

In the end bubble tea is as healthy (or unhealthy) as you want it to be, because both in the store and at home you decide the composition. Of course, everyone can use as much sugar syrup, fruit syrup or sweetened condensed milk as they like and thus drive the sugar and calorie content to its peak. You can even drink a completely sugar-free bubble tea, use chia seeds instead of popping boba, or choose healthy matcha tea as a basis.

A short mythbusters: Is it dangerous to consume bubble tea?

Let's come back to the discussion in Germany that I mentioned earlier. In August 2012, the Rheinische Post published an article stating that "traces of poison in bubble tea" had been found. Scientists at the Technical University of Aachen found carcinogenic substances in samples of the pearls.

As it turned out later, the investigation had merely been a test for a new measuring device. In fact, the Ministry of Consumer Protection of North Rhine-Westphalia carried out a large investigation with over 80 samples—none of which indicated toxic substances. Even the scientist quoted in the article said that he had never made any statements about the health risks and saw the whole thing as a "smear campaign". Unfortunately it was already too late and bubble tea's bad rep still sticks to the pearls today.

Not to be disregarded, however, is the quite justified criticism of child safety, as large pearls could pose a choking hazard.

Is bubble tea vegan and gluten-free?

Usually, toppings such as tapioca pearls, popping boba and jellies are vegan and gluten-free. This should be true of all 'traditional' bubble tea, which does not used gelatin-based products.

Apart from the toppings, if you are lactose intolerant or vegan, you can simply do without milk completely in the composition of your bubble tea, depending on your preference and diet, or replace it with a plant-based milk.

Make your own bubble tea

For this article we treated our office to some bubble tea— and despite the initial skepticism, you wouldn't believe how quickly those cups were emptied. When you make bubble tea at home, you have complete control over what ends up in it and can experiment to find which combination you like best. The other advantage it has over purchased bubble tea: You can also exchange the plastic straws for environmentally friendly stainless steel drinking straws and drink it out of a glass, rather than a single-use plastic cup.

The base:

The easiest way is to start with a freshly brewed tea that has been left to cooled. The type of tea you use is up to you—from green, black, to white or rooibos tea, it's best to choose the one you like best. Some tips: Japanese Genmaicha tea is made from roasted rice grains and has a great malty roasted aroma. For black tea lovers, a particularly aromatic variety such as Assam is recommended.

Once you have cooled your down, you can leave your tea as is, or top it up with milk or with sweetened condensed milk for a sweeter variation.

If you are not a fan of tea, you can make your bubble tea based on coconut water, fruit milk or a smoothie instead.

The toppings:

If you want to use jellies or fun "popping boba", we recommend buying from an Asian supermarket or sourcing them online. Sometimes they are even available for sale in bubble tea shops. Making the pearl yourself is quite complicated. A small tip: Aloe vera flesh is also ideal for bubble tea!

Tapioca pearls, on the other hand, can be prepared quickly and easily at home, though the uncooked pearls are also available in Asian supermarkets or on the Internet. Here's the recipe:

1. Bring sufficient water to the boil in a large pot. You should use at least 7 cups of water for 1 cup of uncooked tapioca pearls. Once the water boils, add the tapioca pearls to the water and stir gently so that they do not stick pot.
2. Once the tapioca pearls are floating on the surface, place a lid on the pot, reduce the heat, and simmer the pearls for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
3. Take the pot off the stove, but leave it sit with the lid on for approx. 15 minutes.
4. Drain the water and rinse the tapioca pearls under running water.
5. Put the cooked pearls in a bowl or container and sweeten them to taste with simple sugar syrup or brown sugar. Allow to steep for approx. 15 minutes and then use for the bubble tea.

Simple syrup

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The extras:

If you like, you can sweeten your bubble tea at many stages. This starts with the choice of top-pings: Add more sugar syrup to the tapioca pearls or choose sweeter varieties of popping boba and jellies. Not enough yet? Add more sugar or fruit syrup. If you prefer more punchy flavours, you can experiment with spices such as cardamom, pumpkin spice or even rose or orange blossom water.

So you master the process, we have put together a small menu selection for you. You'll notice: bubble tea is tasty, harmless, and can even be made through healthy combinations.

Are you a fan of bubble tea or still sceptical about the drink? Let us know your favorite combinations in the comments!

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