Bubble tea not for the meek

To make, take a big gulp and dive in, but with extra patience

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It's approaching 5 a.m., and thoughts racing through my sleepless head are not suitable for a newspaper section whose favorite four-letter word is food.

I'm on my third attempt at making bubble tea, and my tapioca pearls, after lounging in a large low-heat pot for more than four hours, have finally deigned to turn translucent and slightly gray. The problem is, they're still nowhere near the shade of black required. Personally, I'm ready to beat them black and blue and call it a night.

How did I find myself in this kitchen nightmare? All I wanted to do was make genuine Taiwanese bubble tea, the kind in which the richly steeped tea is the forward flavor, not those powders, syrups and jellies that so often pass for fresh fruit in the sweet smoothie interpretations of the drink. But I first needed to learn how to make the "bubbles," or boba, the dark tapioca pearls that I love to Hoover up with a wide-mouth straw.

The first person I contacted was Thanh Tran, matriarch of the Lai family, the Vietnamese clan behind the iconic Four Sisters restaurant in Merrifield, Va., and the Song Que deli in the Eden Center in Falls Church, Va. Tran says she might have been the first to introduce bubble teas to the Eden Center, an Asian shopping center with 120 stores, not long after she spotted the drinks-you-can-eat in Southern California some 12-plus years ago.

If Tran is a pioneer, she's also practical. She warned me away from making my own bubble tea. "Too hard," she told me through her son Thuan, who runs Song Que, where you can order a wide variety of bubble drinks.

Still, even with Tran's warning, I couldn't get those tapioca pearls out of my brain. I've long been fascinated with bubble tea, an accidental invention that has solidified into a global phenomenon. It has spread far beyond its place of origin -- Taiwan in the late 1980s -- and now passes the lips of people on almost every continent, inspiring all sorts of variations along the way (such as bubble tea fruit smoothies without a drop of tea -- or a slice of fresh fruit, for that matter). Even McDonald's sells bubble teas now, in Germany, of all places.

Warnings notwithstanding, I charged ahead and sought the assistance of Diana Shen, a Taiwanese native who more than 10 years ago tried to open her own bubble tea bar in Washington, on the second floor of a Chinatown restaurant. The project ultimately fell through, a casualty of quarreling owners, even though she had already bought all the necessary equipment.

At the Virginia home of her friend Dorothy Brown, Shen offers her own warning: Don't buy the tapioca pearls that need only five minutes of stove-top cooking; those bubbles, she says, sacrifice texture for expediency. "Everybody will be very excited by that: 'Oh, five minutes!'" Shen notes. The trouble, she adds, is that the bubbles will be like "bad-quality chewing gum."

Shen relies on tapioca pearls that she special-orders. She calls them "fresh" pearls. Precooked, these pearls sport a light-tan complexion, as if they were Cocoa Puffs that know when to come inside during the hot midday sun. They smell like maple syrup, and if you press an uncooked pearl between your fingers, it will easily crumble. Shen tells me that I should be able to find these bubbles at Asian supermarkets.

Unable to find fresh pearls, I buy dried white pearls.

That is when the nightmare begins. The first time I tried to cook the dried pearls, I quit after three hours when too many of them stubbornly stayed white. What's more, because of the protracted cooking period, the pearls seemed to release as much starch as they retained, laminating my poor saucepan with a thin layer of translucent goo.

After reviewing my notes from Shen and conducting more research on cooking tapioca pearls, I modified my technique. I boiled the pearls longer before turning down the heat, hoping that was the key to unlocking their color change. It wasn't. Nor was covering the pot for the entire cooking process, a tactic I employed on my third and final attempt, thinking steam might play a role. It didn't. Long before that third batch failed, I feared the worse: These pearls were all wrong for the job.

I called professionals.

"It's a tough product to master," says Linda Neumann, co-owner of Teaism in Washington, where bubble tea has been available for years. But she doesn't cook the bubbles herself, so she turned me over to Ruben Hernandez, general manager at Teaism's store in Old Town Alexandria in Virginia. He cooks the pearls.

"It took a little while" to perfect the bubbles, Hernandez says. "Sometimes they were hard. Sometimes they were a little mushy. … It's not that easy. It takes a little practice."

Like two other bubble-tea makers I interviewed, Hernandez has never used the hard, white Asian supermarket pearls to make his drinks. The bubbles he favors are the same kind Shen had shown me earlier: the caramel-colored pearls that crumble with the slightest pressure. Hernandez prefers a brand called Tea Zone, available in six-pound vacuum-sealed bags on online shopping sites. The ingredient list for Tea Zone bubbles ventures beyond the basic tapioca flour and water of the hard, white pearls; it also includes caramel, maple syrup flavoring and potassium sorbate, a preservative.

The freshness of the pearls and their added color clearly affect the cooking process and the bubbles' ability to turn black. Shen explains that fresh bubbles can turn dark in as little as 20 minutes. The trade-off for such accelerated cooking is that these pearls are fragile. You must drop them straight from the package into boiling water. "If you put them in cold water, they will melt," Shen says.

When I got my hands on fresh bubbles — a cup-of-sugar favor from Song Que — I felt like a prep cook who had just discovered the Cuisinart. What I couldn't muster after four dreadful hours at the stove -- black pearls with a proper chewy texture — I could now create in minutes. And with none of the saucepan goo.

The next question was the classic one of every home cook: How do I know when my ingredient is properly cooked? In other words, how will I know when my pearls have achieved that right, perfect texture?

For my last question, I turned back to my mentor, Shen. She explained the Taiwanese concept of "QQ," which means, roughly, "bouncy." When you test your pearls as they cook, you want bubbles that generate a certain bounce in the mouth as you bite into them.I found that bounce not only in my bubbles but also in my step, as I finally was able to steep some high mountain oolong tea, shake it together with ice and sweetened condensed milk and pour the creamy mixture over a small pile of beautiful, chewy and black tapioca pearls.

Song Que’s Bananas With Tapioca Pearls (Che Chuoi)

Makes 5 to 6 cups (10 to 12 servings).

MAKE AHEAD: The dessert can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Adapted from Tran of the Song Que deli.

5 tablespoons cornstarch

4 cups water

7 ripe bananas, cut crosswise into 1½-inch pieces

2 pandan leaves, each tied in a knot (for easy removal; see headnote)

½ cup small white tapioca pearls (see headnote)

2½ cups regular coconut milk

1 cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt, or more to taste

1 cup roasted unsalted peanuts, finely chopped (optional)

Combine the cornstarch and 1 cup of the water in a liquid measuring cup, stirring until thoroughly blended.

Pour the remaining 3 cups of water into a large saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the banana slices and pandan leaves. Once the liquid has returned to a boil, stir in the tapioca pearls. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the pearls become translucent, which should take 5 to 15 minutes.

Stir in the coconut milk; reduce the heat to medium and cook for 5 to 10 minutes, adjusting the heat as needed so the liquid is barely bubbling. Add the sugar and the ½ teaspoon of salt, stirring until dissolved. Taste for sweetness; add up to ½ teaspoon more salt (which will bring out the sweetness).

Add about one-quarter of the cornstarch mixture; cook for 2 to 4 minutes, stirring until the banana dessert has thickened like a porridge. If it hasn’t, stir in more of the cornstarch mixture to achieve the desired consistency. Remove from the heat and discard the pandan leaves. Discard any unused cornstarch mixture.

When the pudding has cooled, divide it among individual small bowls. Top each portion with chopped peanuts, if desired, and serve right away.

Per serving (based on 12): 250 calories, 2 g protein, 42 g carbohydrates, 10 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol