I first discovered bubble tea about 15 years ago or so when I was living in Chicago, right around the time I also discovered Pho, Sticky Rice, and Pad Thai. Bubble tea kind of throws some people off, but I always did like it, as well as some of the many variations on it that include fruit, and a bunch of other weird, jelly-like... things (the Asian version of gummi bears, I guess). Anyway, bubble tea has kind of exploded in popularity over the last several years, and you can find places that sell it almost everywhere nowadays. Problem is, it's kind of pricey. No more expensive than your average latte-type drink at Starbucks, I guess, but those are overpriced too as far as I'm concerned. Luckily, though, it's pretty easy to make at home. Oh wait, you say you don't like bubble tea? Or even regular tea? Well read on, cretin! Because this drink can be made just as easily (easier, actually) without tea or bubbles, and is in fact a tasty and refreshing beverage all on it's own. And who doesn't like tasty and refreshing beverages? Especially ones that become all the more tasty with the addition of alcohol?
I first tried my hand at making bubble tea about 5 years ago. And while what I made was certainly drinkable, and was made with tea and boba (aka tapioca pearls, or the 'bubbles' in bubble tea), it was really kind of plain and ordinary. Certainly nothing I'd recommend to any real fan of bubble tea. But then awhile back, my brother gave me a bag of dried lemongrass that he'd had in his pantry and no longer wanted. I didn't really have any recipes for it or know what to do with it, so I started experimenting with making some sort of lemongrass tea with it, and before long, I came up with a really, really tasty beverage- very good all on it's own, but it also makes a good base for bubble tea too. Here's the basic recipe:
6 c water
6 T dried lemongrass*
4 star anise
1 T cardamom seed, ground*
1 or 2 cinnamon sticks (approx. 2 inch)
1/2 oz (approx.) fresh ginger, sliced
5-6 T brown sugar, not packed
Coconut milk, to taste
Ok, I haven't worked it all out to the point where it's scientifically the best-tasting possible configuration of cooking time and heat level and all that, but generally, for the non-bubble, non-tea version, here's what you want to do: put everything but the sugar and coconut milk in a pot, bring just to a boil then turn down to a slow simmer for about 5 minutes or so. At this point, strain- or let it set for another 5 minutes or so, whatever- and then add the sugar (more or less, according to how sweet you like things) and as much coconut milk as you like. It doesn't have to be coconut milk, of course, but you're probably going to want some sort of creamer in there, be it soy milk, half and half, or whatever. When it comes to coffee, I always drink mine black, and tea- always straight, nothing added. But this drink is different. I've tried it straight and to be honest, it doesn't really taste all that great. It kind of needs sugar and coconut milk (or whatever. I just think coconut milk blends super well with the flavors of everything else that's in there.) Oh, quick tip on the coconut milk- you want to add it when the 'tea' is just warm- no longer hot, but not cool either- say, around 105-125 degrees F. If the tea is too hot, the oil in the coconut milk tends to separate, and if it's too cool, it tends to not really emulsify. Could just be the kinds of coconut milk that I've been using, but that's been my experience so far. As far as straining the stuff goes, I typically use 'hops' bag (a small fine mesh nylon bag with a drawstring; can be obtained at any homebrew supply store for cheap); everything goes in there before being tossed in the pot. Makes for super easy straining.
So that's my base recipe. Goes great hot or over ice, and has a nice coolness to it from the anise. Very tasty. Very refreshing. But if you want to make an actual bubble tea drink with it, the process is slightly different (only slightly). First off, when it's done brewing, don't add the sugar just yet. Once the tea blend is done and at the correct temp for your type of tea, start with that. And this varies depending on the kind of tea you're using- black tea, you can probably just throw in with the rest of the stuff while it's boiling (I don't know the specifics of it, I'm not a black tea drinker) but green tea is a little more temp-sensitive: you don't want to boil it, for sure. Different varieties of green tea vary in their optimum time/temperature requirements, so follow the instructions on yours accordingly. Black teas, from what I understand, take around 5 minutes, but for the stuff I drink, I usually go with a temp of around 170 degrees F. and steep for 2-3 minutes. So once the lemongrass blend has finished simmering and the heat is off, I remove the hops bag and just let the tea sit until it cools down enough that I can add in my jasmine tea. Obviously a thermometer is in order when using green/white/oolong tea, but if you're a serious tea nerd you already have one anyway. When the tea is done steeping, strain that out and then add about 1/2 the sugar. The other half goes in the water that you cook the pearls in. I really don't have any specific amounts for that- just remember that a little bit of boba goes a long way, so add as much or as little as you think you might want and cover with about an inch of water. Generally, following the instructions on the bag will give you decent results, but I've seen some that say to boil them for a half hour or an hour, which seems way, way too long to me. For the kind I use, I put them in a pot of water, bring it to a boil, then shut it off and cover for 5 minutes and then strain. But don't drain the cooking water- just strain out the pearls and save the water to add to the rest of the bubble tea; the tapioca pearls themselves add a really nice flavor to it. And remember earlier when I mentioned the addition of alcohol? Well, I've found that a good-sized shot of bourbon added to this drink (with or without the boba) adds a really, really nice touch (almost too nice). And I'm certainly no bourbon connoisseur, but Knob Creek was a really nice surprise for me. Long story short, due to a couple really bad experiences with Jack Daniels several years ago, I swore off all whiskey altogether. Couldn't drink it if I wanted to- even the smell of it was too much to handle. But then recently a friend of mine introduced another friend of mine to Knob Creek, and since I happened to be standing right there (and probably had had a couple of drinks of my own already) I asked for a taste of it, and was instantly hooked. It's very smooth and has a nice carmely finish to it. So that's my recommendation for adding alcohol to this. A lot of people swear by Maker's Mark, but I've tried it side-by-side with Knob Creek- and I'm sticking with Knob Creek.
So- you could make yourself a glass of bubble tea and add the bourbon to that, and it would be very delicious just like that; but what I do is when I strain the pearls after they're done cooking, I rinse them briefly under cold water- not long enough to cool them entirely, just for a few seconds or so until they're no longer hot, but still quite warm- and then put them in a bowl or glass and cover them with the bourbon. That way they soak some of it up, which really adds to the flavor. Very good, indeed.
So there you have it- a very tasty drink, with or without the tea and/or bubbles and/or alcohol (though I think it's best with all three). And again, it goes great hot or iced.
* Note on lemongrass and cardamom: for cardamom, I've used whole and ground- I think ground gives you more flavor, but if you don't have a fine mesh bag to strain everything with, there's the sediment you have to deal with. Whole seeds minimize that, but you'll need more to get the same amount of flavor, and considering how expensive the stuff is (on average, around $45-50/lb, though Great American Spice has it for under $35/lb, last I checked) I'd just recommend picking up the fine mesh bag and going with ground (assuming you grind it yourself, too). As for the lemongrass, the stuff I've been using is from Penzey's, but I think I'm going to find someplace else, since they seem to have changed the cut size to something much, much finer- almost to the point of being a powder. The original bag that my brother gave me was cut very coarse- it looked like cut grass, or a loose-leaf regular tea, almost. (Kind of like this picture, from Great American Spice.) So when I ran out of that, I went back and bought 1/2 lb. more, and the difference was striking. Even using the fine mesh nylon bag to strain it, some still gets through. But if you don't have one of those bags and instead use a fine mesh strainer, then a considerable amount of it is going to come through.
One final word on the tapioca pearls themselves- the quality can vary quite a bit, and price isn't always a good indicator. Generally, the pastel colored ones are always quite good, if a bit more expensive. But when going with the standard black/brown pearls, if possible, try pinching one of the pearls through the bag- it shouldn't break or crumble. If it does, I'd avoid those. I bought a large bag once awhile ago, and after I cooked and drained them, I noticed that most of them were falling apart in the strainer. I thought maybe I'd just overcooked them or something, so I made some more and saw that they were breaking apart right in the pot before the water even started to boil! So I poured some straight from the bag into my hand and found I could crush them as easily as if they were just crackers or something! I ended up throwing the whole bag out (over 5 lbs.) Decent quality pearls will not fall apart so easily. It should be extremely difficult to crush one between your fingers. In my experience, the good quality brown/black pearls look like tiny little chocolate donut holes, covered with powered sugar. The lesser-quality ones are a lighter brown color and don't have the 'powdered sugar' coating (in my experience, anyway). If you can get a direct recommendation from somebody, all the better.