Tapioca pearls, or ‘boba’, are probably best known as the chewy bubbles in boba tea, the Taiwanese chilled tea drink that has taken the world by storm. In fact, these jelly-like spheres, known locally as fenyuan, were already a popular dessert topping before the invention of boba tea, thanks to their rubbery, chewy consistency, a quality that is usually referred to in English as ‘Q’.
Q is much-sought-after in many East Asian cuisines, so when someone (exactly who is hotly contested by various Taiwanese tea houses) thought of putting fenyuan tapioca pearls in chilled milky tea sometime in the mid-80s, the drink was a success throughout East Asia. It grew to include different syrup flavours, and tapioca balls of all different shapes, sizes and colours. At some point the larger balls became known as ‘boba,’ a Chinese word for large breasts, and by association the drink became known as boba tea.
Over the following decades, boba tea also became popular in the West. These days it is particularly beloved by Instagrammers, thanks to the range of colours and patterns available. Boba tea was America’s first real introduction to that elusive but addictive texture known as ‘Q’, and for many of us, it was love at first bite.
What are tapioca pearls?
Boba are made primarily from tapioca, a starch extracted from cassava root. Tapioca is mostly carbohydrate, but it contains low levels of cholesterol and is rich in both iron and manganese.
Despite their gelatinous texture, tapioca pearls do not contain any gelatine, so are suitable for vegetarians and vegans. They are also gluten free. In their basic form, they are transparent, but they often have black dye or brown sugar added, creating dark-coloured pearls that contrast pleasingly with the whiteness of the milky tea. If you’re looking for a more vibrant effect, they can be dyed pretty much any colour you can think of, and are also available with added flavourings such as fruit purées or juices.
Most major cities will have a boba tea shop or two in Chinatown, but if you want to make fresh boba at home, it’s actually pretty simple. Making your own also provides the opportunity to experiment with different flavours, shapes and colours, so they’re custom-made just for you.
Uses in the kitchen
Of course, tapioca pearls aren’t only used in boba tea. As we have already seen, they were a popular dessert ingredient long before the drink was invented, and they can even be included in savoury dishes, too.
Tapioca pearl pudding: this classic tapioca pudding from Bon Appetit is deliciously creamy and silky, with just the right amount of texture from those Q-rich tapioca balls
Thai tapioca pearl dumplings:a vegan adaptation of Thai classic saku sai mu, this flavourful appetiser from Veggie Belly is made from tapioca dumplings stuffed with onion, ginger, garlic, Morningstar Crumbles, peanuts and soy sauce, and served with a soy-sesame dip.
Oysters in brioche crust with marinated tapioca: created by legendary Brazilian chef Alex Atala, of two-Michelin-star São Paulo restaurant D.O.M., this exquisite oyster appetiser is flavoured with caviar, lime juice, Tabasco and soy sauce, with Q-rich tapioca pearls to compliment the oyster’s slippery texture.
How to make tapioca pearls
Making your own tapioca pearls at home couldn’t be easier. For this recipe, we will show you how to make classic ‘black’ pearls, coloured with brown sugar, but you can adapt the recipe according to the effect you want, switching the sugar for a little food dye, or adding your favourite flavours to the mix.
To make the pearls:
To cook the pearls:
8 ¼ cups
Add the water to a pan and bring to a rolling boil. Add the sugar and keep boiling until the sugar has fully dissolved in the liquid.
Remove from the heat, add just under half of the tapioca flour and mix in thoroughly, then add the rest of the tapioca and mix again. Try to do this as quickly as possible, as this helps the dough to form. You may wish to wear protective gloves to avoid splashing yourself with hot water.
The mixture should form a dough, but this can take a few adjustments to achieve, as different brands of tapioca flour have different consistencies. If you are unable to form a dough, add more tapioca flour, 1 tsp at a time, stirring well each time until you reach the desired consistency. Likewise, if the mixture is too dry, add 1 tsp of water and mix well.
Once you have your dough, leave it to sit for a while until it’s cool enough to touch, then sprinkle some tapioca flour onto a clean surface, knead the dough and roll it out to about ½ inch thick.
Take a sharp knife and cut the dough into ½ inch by ½ inch squares, rolling each square between the palms of your hands until it forms a ball, then rolling it in some more tapioca flour to prevent it from sticking to the others.
At this point, you can either store the balls in an airtight container in the refrigerator until you need them, or, if you’re using them right away, continue to the next step and cook them to that perfect, chewy ‘Q’ consistency.
To cook, add the dry tapioca balls to a pan and cover with 8 cups of the water, reserving ¼ cup for later. Cook on a medium-high heat for 6-8 minutes, then reduce the heat to low and cook for a further 5-10 minutes, depending on how firm you like your pearls.
While you are waiting for the pearls to cook, place the sugar and the rest of the water in another pan and bring to the boil, cooking for around 5 minutes.
Keep checking both pans, and when the tapioca balls start rising to the top of the water, remove them and place them in an ice bath for 1 minute.
When the sugar syrup is ready, it should be slightly thickened but still runny, so it coats the spatula without immediately running off. Once you have the right consistency, reduce the heat to low, remove the pearls from their ice bath and add to the sugar syrup, leaving them to cook for 6-8 minutes.
When the pearls are ready, remove them from the mixture. If you’re serving them with hot ingredients, you can serve right away, otherwise leave them for 10-15 minutes to cool.
If you want to find out more about boba tea, including its history, and some of the more popular styles and toppings, take a look at our ultimate guide to boba tea.