What's The Difference: Taho Pearls Vs. Milk Tea Black Pearls

Sago are not like your favorite milk tea black pearls.

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ILLUSTRATOR Roselle Miranda

It's funny that before the milk tea craze hit, the only kinds of pearls that Filipinos loved to eat were those in our taho cups and sago't gulaman glasses. The milk tea trend and those black pearls on the bottom of your cup are responsible for the confusion. 

Sago are the translucent little orbs swimming in the mass of soy curds aka taho and arnibal or a brown sugar syrup which are commonly flavored with pandan or screwpine leaves. The black pearls in your milk tea are treated in much the same way but instead of soy curds and syrup, these are found swimming in freshly brewed tea drinks made milky with either cream or fresh milk. 

Many are confused however about what these two different kinds of pearls are made of, so here's the deal: Sago is not the same as the black pearls that you love in your milk tea.

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"How?" do you ask? 

Here are the differences between the sago pearls you commonly find in your taho and the chewy black pearls  in the bottom of your milk tea cup: 

These are sago pearls before it's cooked.
Photo by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay
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1 Sago are sourced from a palm tree. Black pearls are made from cassava. 

Those who believe sago are tapioca pearls think these are the same because both pearls come from starch. Sago is made of the edible starch from the pith of a palm tree. These are carefully harvested because, just like the cassava plant, the tree contains toxins. The starch is repeatedly washed before these are formed into little edible balls. These are then dried and packaged for longer storage. 

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The black pearls are actually made from tapioca or cassava starch. The root crop cassava is also known as yuca or kamoteng kahoy. It's the root crop that, when properly dried and ground, becomes tapioca flour. This is not to be confused with cassava starch because cassava flour is made from the whole root while cassava starch is the extracted starch from the root crop. These are formed into a paste and formed into pearls. That's why it is these that are more accurately known as tapioca pearls. 

The black pearls in your milk tea are made from tapioca or cassava starch.
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Sago is cooked in water. Black pearls are simmered in a sugar syrup. 

The way to cook these two kinds of pearls is also similar. However, another big difference is how it's done. 

How to cook sago 

There are two ways to do it: cooked or soaked. You can cook sago simply by simmering the pearls in water over low heat until the hard pearls are tender and no longer have opaque white centers. Here's how to do it: 

  1. 1 In a medium pot, pour in 1/2 cup small sago pearls or 1 cup large sago pearls. 
  2. 2 Pour in enough water to cover the sago pearls at least 1 inch or around 4 cups (1 liter) water. 
  3. 3 Bring to a boil then simmer the sago until the pearls only have a small white center, stirring regularly to prevent the sago from sticking to the bottom of the pot and burning. 
  4. 4 Once cooked until only a tiny white center is left in the sago, set aside until the sago pearls are completely translucent and no more white centers are present.
  5. 5 Drain and rinse in cold water. Use as needed. 
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Don't want to stand over a hot stove? You can also "cook" the pearls by pouring just-boiled water over them. Let the water cool and then reheat the water again with the sago pearls. Repeat until the sago pearls are tender and no longer have white centers. Drain and rinse. 

How to cook black pearls

To cook dried black pearls or tapioca pearls, you need to cook these in water. Here's how to do it:

  • 1 Add about 1 cup dried black pearls to a pot. Add enough water to cover the pearls with 1 inch of water. Add 1/2 cup brown sugar.
  • 2 Bring to a simmer and then cover and cook over low heat for about 30 minutes up to one hour depending on the amount of size of the balls you're cooking. Cook until there is no longer a white center visible, stirring regularly. (These too will turn translucent so the centers will be visible if not fully cooked through.)
  • 3 Add more water as needed so the syrup does not become too thick or dry up and burn the balls. 
  • 4 Strain and use as desired. 
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Sago pearls, when cooked, turn translucent.
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Sago are not chewy like black pearls. 

The biggest difference may be the texture. Sago actually have a tender bite and easily break apart when bitten. Black pearls are chewy and it's this quality that makes it so enjoyable for many when drinking their milk tea. 

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