With a bubble tea obsession bordering on crazy, we have been on an aggressive search for tapioca pearls, so that we could make bubble tea in the comfort of our home. After our dismal first attempt at cooking white tapioca, we had all but given up. Until we came face to face with BROWN tapioca. Looking more promising and closer to the usual black ones used for bubble tea, we decided to give it another shot.
Where To Buy
- Having looked for these elusive little pearls for years, I had almost given up and was just browsing the aisle of imported Asian products at the Lamcy branch of Al Maya, when a little pack of uncooked white tapioca pearls stared back at me. I called my partner in grocery obsessiveness and we squealed over it for a couple of minutes, before rushing to the counter, completely forgetting what we came in to buy in the first place. One small packet was for 5.50 Dhs. There is only one brand. However, there were other jars of cooked white tapioca pearls in the aisle too, but they didn’t look too appetizing.
- The brown tapioca pearls are located in the imported Asian products aisle of a very curious, massive, futuristic looking Al Baraheim Hypermarket that has just opened up in Deira. There is no sign of it on Google Maps, but it is on Al Muraqqabat Road, right next to Aroos Damascus, which is pretty much a Dubai landmark by itself.
How To Cook
First, we attempted to figure out the difference between the brown and white tapioca. The white pearls listed ‘tapioca starch’ as the only ingredient, which is usually a good sign. The brown tapioca listed ‘cassava starch (the same as tapioca) and water’ which was curious because, according to our research, brown tapioca pearls usually contain some brown sugar. We figured we would just taste it and see if there was any noticeable difference, because we had no idea at all how the added water impacts the pearls. At our bubble tea spot Bubbles & Boba (in Dubai Mall), you can choose either white or black pearls added to your tea, which are pretty indistinguishable from each other in taste.
After looking through a lot of recipes and experimenting on the white ones, we decided to go with the most popular one. Any recipe that tells you that your bubbles will cook in under half an hour can be discarded (unless you’re buying instant boba, but this species of tapioca has not been sighted yet in Dubai, as far as we know). Any recipe that tells you to soak the tapioca before cooking can be tossed too.
Step 1- Measure out the ingredients
We took about 1/4 cup each of uncooked brown and white tapioca pearls, and about 10 times the amount of water for cooking each of them (approx. measurement).
Step 2- Bring the water to a boil, and cook the pearls
After bringing the water to a rolling boil on high heat (not the initial boiling phase; this is when the water continues to boil) we added the pearls in slowly while stirring (to avoid it clumping together), and let it cook on high heat for about 10-15 minutes. At this point you will notice no difference in the way they look, but a thin slimy film will have formed on the pearls. This was consistent for both the pearls. After that, we brought the heat down to medium, and cooked them with the lid half on about 30 minutes. The brown ones had almost doubled in size, while the white ones had expanded considerably and were half translucent.
Step 3- After about 45 minutes, check for doneness
At this point we tasted it to check for doneness. Depending on the heat of your stove, your tapioca could either have finished cooking by now, or would be almost done. When we tried the brown ones, they had an unusual tough, chewy texture, which we assumed meant that they had not been cooked through yet. The white ones were chewy but the starchy, powdery aftertaste meant that they needed to be cooked a little more as well.
Step 4- Cook more if needed, and check for doneness every 5 minutes
Since the recipe we found online said that the tapioca would be have finished cooking in 45 minutes, we decided to cook them further in 5 minute increments (adding more water as needed to cook). 15 minutes later, the white pearls were almost cooked through (very slight starchy taste). We turned off the heat and let it steep for about 10 minutes, then drained the excess water. They turned out perfect.
The brown ones though, hadn’t changed in texture at all in these 15 minutes. We cooked and tasted for another half an hour, refusing to give up. But the icky texture stayed the same. After a total 90 minute cooking time, we finally gave up, and let it steep for 10 minutes, hoping that would do the trick. But while they looked perfect and fluffy and chewy, the texture and taste was like what we imagined industrial grade rubber would be. It felt like an artificial, synthetically produced tapioca pearl. We tossed the entire thing out.
Step 5- Add a hot mixture of equal parts water and sugar.
This was the instruction according to the recipe. We cheated and used about 2 tbsp of brown sugar cooked with about 4 tbsp of water until dissolved. It was enough to make sure the pearls don’t stick to each other, but not so much that they are completely immersed). You can add more or less sugar (brown or white) according to your preference.
Step 6- Add it to your drink
The best way to serve these pesky little pearls is immediately after cooking. The cooler they get, the drier and chewier (not in a good way) they become. Which is why, if you’re adding them to a cold drink, first add the tapioca at the bottom, a little bit of the drink at room temperature (if possible), and then the cold drink. Keeping the layers separate will keep the tapioca from getting cold and tasting terrible.
For a one-time serving of bubble tea, going through an hour long process of cooking the tapioca didn’t seem like a worthwhile investment of our time and effort. While the brown tapioca was completely inedible, the white one tasted really good, just like the ones you would find in bubble tea cafes. We’d recommend giving it a shot if you’re curious about making homemade bubble tea (or are we the only ones who feel this crazy need to try cooking everything at home?). Or maybe if you’re looking to impress some guests with your beverage making skills. But cooking it regularly? That 30 Dhs Bubble Tea from the mall doesn’t seem as expensive anymore.