Here in the US, when we hear the word “meatballs,” we automatically think “spaghetti” – which is fitting, since the combination is an All-American dish. It’s as American as corned beef and cabbage or chili con carne. These dishes seem foreign or ethnic, but were invented here, by immigrants. True, native Italians do eat spaghetti (or other pasta, depending upon their local preference), and many of them also eat meatballs, but our familiar combination doesn’t really exist in Italy.
I take that back – you could probably order it in restaurants that cater to American tourists.
Italian meatballs aren’t the only ones we know, of course. Swedish meatballs come to mind (especially if we’re shopping at IKEA), but meatballs are popular all over the world. Frugal folk have always made use of the little scraps of meat that were left over from butchering, but weren’t big enough to serve on their own – but could be chopped and extended with a bit of day-old bread. The range of variations they’ve concocted could, and probably should, keep us in meatballs for a lifetime.
Consider the kofta (or keftedes). These little spheres of joy are served all around the Eastern Mediterranean. In Greece they’re sometimes made with beef, but more often with lamb (“What? You don’t eat no meat? That’s alright. I’ll make lamb.”). Seasoned with oregano, mint, and garlic, they’re generally served with a side of tzatziki —a sauce of yogurt, cucumber and dill. The Turkish version, köfte, substitutes cumin and allspice for the oregano. It might be accompanied by more yogurt, or possibly a garlicky sauce made of tahini. Lebanese kibbe adds cinnamon and/or cardamom, plus a little goat cheese, to the Turkish formula – then garnished with a few pine nuts. Syrian kafta are served in tomato sauce, but you would never mistake them for Italian polpettine. They’re like those of their Lebanese neighbors, but substitute cooked rice for breadcrumbs, and nutmeg for the cheese. The sauce usually shows recognizable bits of onion. Israeli ketzitzot are made of beef or veal, seasoned with garlic and cumin or sumac (think a carnivorous version of falafel). All these examples are probably descended from ancient Persia, where the Farsi verb “to grind” was kuftan. Even today, Iranian meatballs are, collectively, koofteh (there’s a recipe for one type, below).
Much further east, the famous lion’s head meatballs (shīzi tóu) of China consist of forcemeat that is essentially the same as the filling for pot-sticker dumplings (ground pork, soy sauce, rice wine, minced scallions, water chestnuts, and ginger, egg, bound by cornstarch instead of rice or breadcrumbs). They’re huge, first browned or steamed, then simmered in chicken stock and soy sauce, surrounded by some form of shredded cabbage (which was supposed to suggest a lion’s mane). Japanese tsukune are appetizer-like skewered balls of ground chicken, minced shiitake mushrooms, ginger and scallions, glazed with a sweet mixture of shoyu (soy), mirin (sweet rice wine), and lemon juice, thickened with brown sugar and cornstarch. In Indonesia and Thailand, meatballs of chicken, beef, pork, or even fish, are popular street foods, generally served on bamboo skewers with a side of satay sauce made from thick sweet soy, coconut milk, or peanuts.
At the other side of the world, Mexicans enjoy their albóndigas (and you can too; there’s a recipe for one of them below). The Mexican appreciation of these savory spheres is hardly surprising, since many meatball recipes are standard tapas fare in Spain. Both, ultimately, owe their existence to the Moors – so, we have come full circle back to a source in the eastern Mediterranean.
A little aside: a “meatless meatball” that is still enjoyed everywhere in the American south – the hushpuppy – is, likewise, a direct descendent of the Middle East, via two separate groups of traders in African slaves: the Arab slave traders from the east, and American slave ships from the west. What is a hushpuppy but falafel with a southern accent?
Serves 4 – 6
½ cup rice
2 eggs, beaten lightly
1 pound lean ground beef
2 – 3 Tbsp. curry powder
¼ cup chick-pea flour
1 cup [in total] parsley, dill weed, and scallions, chopped
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp. pepper
2 Tbsp. butter
1 can chicken broth
½ cup water
2 – 3 Tbsp. lemon juice
- Boil the rice in salted water for 10 minutes. Drain, and set aside. Grate 1 onion, and add it to the beaten eggs. Mix these with the ground beef, rice, curry powder, chick-pea flour, chopped herbs, salt, and pepper. Work well with the hands, and shape into small balls about the size of walnuts.
- Slice the remaining onion, and sauté it in the butter until golden brown. Add the chicken broth, water, and lemon juice. Arrange the meatballs in this sauce. Cover and simmer over low heat for one hour, or until all of the liquid has been absorbed. Turn at least once. Or bake the meatballs in the oven for 1 hour at 350°F., with the pan covered. Turn the meatballs over at least once.
- You can make chick-pea flour by putting dried chick-peas through a blender.
Notes: Back in the day, few home cooks made their own broths. Feel free to use 2 cups of home-made chicken stock for the canned broth and water. Also, during the nearly 4 decades since this recipe appeared, chick-pea flour has become much more readily available! It’s easy to forget how much American eating habits have changed since the “good old days.”
Source: Nesta Ramazani, Persian Cooking: A Table of Exotic Delights. New York: Quadrangle, 1974.
Albóndigas de Jalisco
for the meatballs:
1 ½ cups long-grain rice
3/4 pound pork, finely ground
¾ pound beef, finely ground
2 small zucchini squash (about 6 ounces)
¼ scant tsp. oregano
3 sprigs fresh mint (or 1 tsp.dried)
¾ tsp. salt
¼ scant tsp. cumin seeds
1/3 onion, chopped
for the sauce:
2 medium tomatoes
2 Tbsp. peanut or safflower oil
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
4 cups light meat of chicken broth
Method for the Meatballs
- Cover the rice with boiling water and leave it to soak for about 45 minutes.
- Trim the squash and chop it very finely. Add it to the meat.
- Blend the eggs with the seasonings and chopped onion and mix well with the meat.
- Drain the rice and add it to the mixture. Make 24 meatballs, each about 1 ½ inches in diameter.
Method for the Sauce
- Pour boiling water over the tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes.
- Skin the tomato and blend it until almost smooth.
- Heat the oil and cook the sliced onion gently, without browning, until soft.
- Add the tomato puree, bring it to a boil, and let it cook fast for about 3 minutes.
- Add the broth to the tomato sauce and bring it to a simmer. Add the meatballs, cover the pan, and let them simmer for 1 ¼ to 1 ½ hours. Serve in deep bowls with plenty of sauce.
Source: Diana Kennedy, The Cuisines of Mexico. New York: Harper & Row, 1972.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Food is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us