Light brown, slightly viscous liquid with a hint of sweetness and cream, coupled with black gelatinous starch balls with just the right amount of give to the teeth. Yum!
My first taste of this Taiwanese dessert drink, called either pearl milk tea or bubble tea in English, came in February 2000 in Taichung. And after a dozen cups of the real stuff at various outlets in Taipei, and several dozen attempts to recreate the experience in the United States, I have resigned myself to the fact that I can only get the real, ultimate pearl milk tea in New York City (a whopping $4 at Sweet n Tart near Mott Street) or Taiwan (about $1 at a myriad of locations all over, with the best at a store in Tien Mu called Quickly).
After coming back to Washington, D.C., I asked almost every Taiwanese-American friend I knew where I could get pearl milk tea in the area. They pointed me to a couple of locations in the Rockville, Maryland area, but each quest resulted in disappointment and a deeper dent in my wallet. Either the starch balls were tiny and undercooked, or else the tea had a strange and different taste. I tried experimenting at home, excited that the local Asian groceries sold starch balls and jumbo straws… the kinds expressly used for pearl milk tea.
I tried using different individual tea bags and discovered that Harris Teeter brand iced tea bags produce the most authentic tasting tea for the recipe. However, the homemade pearl milk tea has to be served warm so the sugar dissolves. The real pearl milk tea is probably made with sugar syrup, so that it can be served hot or cold. Also, since I can’t read Chinese too well, I had to learn how to properly boil the starch balls by trial and error. If you add the starch balls to cold water, they’ll turn into powder. Boil them too long and you might end up with a burnt glob of jelly in the saucepan. Boil them too short and you’ll end up biting into starch balls with hard, powdery centers.
And now, after that very lengthy introduction, comes my recipe for homemade pearl milk tea, which is close enough to the real thing when you have to satisfy your craving:
Pearl Milk Teas By Judy
- 1/3 cup uncooked starch balls (comes in a small plastic pink and clear bag that has a picture of the cooked starch balls on the front)
- 3-4 cups water
- 2 cups hot tea
- 1/2 cup whole milk or half-and-half
- 6 tbsp sugar
- (Makes 2 servings)
Bring the water to a boil in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the starch balls and boil for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally. Turn the heat down to low, cover the saucepan partially, and cook the starch balls for about 20-25 minutes, stirring often. To test for done-ness, take out a couple of starch balls, rinse in water to cool them off, and try them to make sure they’re not raw and crunchy in the middle.
Add milk or half-and-half and sugar to 2 glasses of prepared hot tea. Add cooked starch balls. Drink with a jumbo straw. Pine away for the real pearl milk tea in Taiwan and New York City.