Bubble tea is a generic name given to differently coloured, fruit-flavoured syrups diluted with water, milk and/or weak tea, to which small, chewy pearls or balls are added consisting usually of candied yam, tapioca, sago or jelly.
Bubble-like in appearance, the balls are known as ‘Fen Yuan’ (粉圆 literally means flour balls) or ‘Zhen Zhu’ (珍珠 pearls). The drink is served hot or iced, and usually shaken to create a foam on top. Actually the term ‘bubble’ refers either to the chewy pearls or Fen Yuan, or the foam topping.
The original bubble tea in the 1980s consisted of a mixture of hot Taiwanese black tea, small tapioca pearls, condensed or evaporated milk, and syrup or honey, but the most popular kinds now are bubble black tea (泡沫紅茶 ‘paomo hongcha‘), bubble green tea (泡沫綠茶 ‘paomo lücha’) which is often jasmine-fragrance green tea, pearl milk tea, pearl green & milk tea and pearl black tea.
60g mung bean powder
6 pandan leaves
pinch of salt
green colouring (optional)
- Wash pandan leaves and blend with water and salt.
- Sift through a muslin cloth.
- Add the green colouring if using and gradually
stir in the mung bean flour.
- Bring the mixture to a boil on low heat,
stirring continuously till thickens.
- Remove from heat and leave to cool for 5min.
- Prepare an ice bath. Scoop a small amount
of the mixture onto a big slotted spoon. And
press the mixture slowly and allow the droplets
to fall into the ice water.
- Leave the droplets to set in the iced water
- Strain and add to coconut milk with gula
Bubble tea these days has become part of the modern, fast-food culture that appeals to young people and “kidults”. The tea is served in disposable plastic cups, with an extra wide straw to allow the pearls to be sucked up. Everything is plastic and brightly coloured (hence not completely natural and probably not very good for your health). It’s a natural evolution and I have no great objection to it. I guess it is a commercial necessity. But I have to say, it is a million miles away from the slow, understated, relaxed ethos of Teanamu Chaya Teahouse.
I was once in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou when I spied a little stall called ‘Tea Factory’ making all sorts of bubble tea. My eye was caught by a ‘Dragon Well’ bubble tea, which used the locally produced ‘Top Ten’ green tea highly sought after for its wonderful umami sweetness (especially the top grade pre-Qingming pickings).
The thought of Dragon Well mixed with milk made me cringe a bit, but I tried it and to my surprise it was rather pleasant! Ok there were no ‘pearls’, the milk was (at least partly) evaporated milk, and the sweetness was probably chemical and certainly not a natural umami. Basically it was green tea, water, milk and ice. But in the oppressive heat of the early summer, I sat on the concrete paving of the city centre and enjoyed a quite delightful, refreshing drink! So with the heatwave in London, I created my own version of this bubble tea with purple yam mochi.
Writing this blog post is reminding me of my favourite childhood dessert, Chendol. This is a delicious beverage from Singapore and Malaysia that existed way before the invention of bubble teas! It is a high-calorie, cold ‘soup’ made with thick coconut milk, Gula Melaka (palm sugar) syrup and lots of shaved ice. Typically, candied azuki beans and soft green mung bean flour droplets are added to the soup.
The name Chendol (珍露 “zhenglu” i.e. ‘pearly dews’) actually refers to these green mung bean flour droplets, which are tasteless and are coloured with pandan leaves (and often, I’m afraid, green colouring too). On a hot day in Singapore, this is the perfect Nonya dessert and my favourite “bubble tea”!