Photos and Words by Fred Chang
Being born and constantly visiting my native Taiwan, one of the Asian treats I’ve come to love is boba milk tea, popularly known in the east coast as “bubble tea.” Boba is essentially an Asian variant on tapioca, being larger, darker, and chewier; once cooked, these balls become tender and translucent. A childhood favorite, boba was something my mom would actually cook for me and my sister often at home in California, and we would refer to the pearls as “frog eggs” because of how they looked, much to the horror of our boba-unfamiliar neighbors who assumed we were actually consuming unborn tadpoles.
One of my favorite flavors for boba milk tea is Thai iced tea, which is a bright orange tea scented with spices such as clove and star anise. Combining that with Ovaltine, another Asian drink, that is rich, malty, almost chocolate-like, makes for a rich, deep flavored tea, perfect to pair with milk and sugar. The keys to making a good milk tea is having enough sugar to milk. Generally, a ratio of ¼ cup sugar to 1 ¼ cup milk to 2 bags of tea would yield a drinkable liquid that is not too sweet, has a nice, creamy mouthfeel, and still has the fragrance of tea. A common trick that most boba stores do is brew the tea in water first, and once the flavor has steeped, the tea is then strained and milk powders are stirred into the flavored liquid; this is done so that the milk itself does not get heated to too high a temperature or split from being reduced.
As for boba, the treatment of it is incredibly similar to a pasta, where one has to boil the uncooked grain, although in the case of boba pearls, as they are thick and round, they tend to take a lot longer, from 35 minutes to an hour, to cook through. The most desirable texture in boba, just like pasta, is for it to have a bit of a chew, cooked to be al dente. Once that texture is achieved, the boba is then soaked in a warm simple syrup, as cooling the boba itself will cause it to harden and yield an unpleasantly sticky texture. Overall, the best way to have boba milk tea would be to have warm, almost tender boba swimming with cold, creamy milk tea.
3 tablespoons ovaltine
2 Thai tea bags
2 tablespoons sugar
Water (6 cups, divided into one part, 4 cups, one part 2 cups)
A pinch of salt
1/4 cup starch balls (Boba)
1 tablespoon coconut milk powder
1 tablespoon malted milk powder
1 tablespoon heavy cream
Combine ingredients, sans boba, milk powder, cream, and sugar, and bring to a roaring boil. Add in the boba pearls and continue to boil for 40 minutes. Strain out the boba, reserving the liquid (should be reduced to about 2 1/2 cups), and dissolve in the sugar and salt into the warm tea liquid. Add 2 more cups of water into the pot where the tea was cooked, and stir the deglaze the pot. Add boba back into the pot, along with the tea bags, and re-boil for another 30 minutes (the boba will be cooked once the pearls are about 75% of the way translucent). Strain the boba and bags, and whisk both batches of tea liquid together with the powdered milk, vanilla extract, and heavy cream.
2 tablespoons sugar
1/4 cup water + more
Reduce sugar and water with salt in a pot until the sugar is fully dissolved. Take the strained boba, and allow it to steep in the simple syrup for 10 minutes.
Ladle in the warm boba into the bottom of a glass. Pour the milk tea over the boba, and serve right away. The milk tea itself can be made up to a week in advance, and stored in the refrigerator.