How to Replace the Tapioca Balls in Bubble Tea

Photo: Kimi Harris .

Have you ever had bubble tea? It's pretty delicious. This creamy, often fruit-flavored and sweetened tea drink is very popular in many parts of the world and in my part of the country. The thing that is unique about it (beyond the delicious combo of tea, milk, and fruit juice) is the little balls of goodness that you have to slurp up with an especially big straw. Generally these are large tapioca balls.

When some out of state family was visiting this last summer, we all went to a bubble tea place that did more allergen friendly versions. It was good, but extremely sweet. I wondered about making them at home, without a month’s worth of sugar in each cup. I am pretty happy with my home experiments! Today lets tackle the chewy morsels that you add to the drink, and then in my next post we will address the liquid part of the equation.

What I found out fairly quickly was that there is some significant concerns about traces of toxins in the tapioca balls used in these drinks. Besides which, they aren’t the most healthy or nourishing item to start with.

So, I started thinking of different items you could use. What I found out was that while tapioca balls were the most common addition, there are actually a very wide array of slurp-able choices in many of the original bubble tea shops. Many of these items are very healthy, and fun too!

Young Coconut Meat

One item is young coconut meat. It naturally has a gelatin-like texture, is sweet and, when cut into strips, can fit through the large bubble tea straws. This gives you step-by- step instructions on how to open one. While not common in the U.S., this sweet coconut meat is delicious and very popular in many Asian countries. It goes great with bubble tea!


A second idea I had was to use blueberries, which are almost exactly the right size to mimic tapioca balls. Unfortunately they aren’t in season right now, so I wasn’t able to try them out, but I think that they would play well with the fruit-flavored versions of bubble tea.

Jelly Strips

And the last nourishing bubble tea “bubble” idea I had was to make your own “jelly” strips, which I found out were also popular in bubble tea (despite not being round). Using a grass-fed gelatin, I was easily able to make my own Jasmine green tea flavored jelly strips that had the same sort of chew you expect with bubble tea! The one thing to note is that you really have to chew these cubes to get to the flavor at all, as it’s locked into the gelatin. Here is the simple recipe for it.

Jelly Strips or bites for Bubble Tea

1. Mix together 2 tablespoons of gelatin with 1⁄4 cup of cold water. Let sit while you do step

2. Brew two bags of Jasmine green tea (organic and fair trade preferred) in 3⁄4 cup of hot water for 5-6 minutes. Squeeze tea bags into the cup, and stir in 2 tablespoons of sweetener of choice (I used honey) Add to the bowl of gelatin and water. Stir to melt the gelatin. (If the tea is no longer hot enough to completely melt the gelatin, simply pour into a small saucepan and heat gently until it has just dissolved.)

3. Pour into a loaf pan and refrigerate until it has set.

4. Once it has set, run a knife around the edge of the pan to help loosen it, and turn out onto a cutting board. Cut into bite sized pieces and use 3-4 tablespoons per cup of bubble tea.

Variation: Instead of making a green tea version, you could also use mango juice (or juice of choice) in place of the tea. Simply heat the juice up (3/4 cup), and then add to the softened gelatin in step one and continue on with the recipe.