The Universal Meatball

20 Jan

As you can probably tell from previous entries, I love cooking food from all over the world. I enjoy the varieties of flavours and techniques, from the comfort of British stodge to the intense spice in Sichuan cooking.

But after cooking for a few years, I have really noticed that there are some dishes that are truly universal. Most cultures have some version of pancakes, both sweet and savoury. They also do some version of a filling wrapped in dough and then cooked, whether it’s Asian dumplings, South American empanadas, or British pasties. The universal food that I want to talk about today, however, is the meatball.

I can imagine the logic that drove the creation of the first meatball: we have a little bit of meat that’s too tough to eat on its own, and it’s not enough to feed everyone. So we’ll chop it into tiny little pieces, and mix it with some starch to both stretch it and bind it together, and then cook it!

Of course, most meatballs aren’t just mince and starch; most are dressed up with bright and bold flavours to balance the inherent blandness, whether it’s Parmesan and oregano with tomato sauce in Italian versions, or parsley, garlic, and sumac in Middle Eastern kofte. I’m an equal-opportunity meatball eater (porky ones excepted), and if there’s a version of the tasty little orbs on a restaurant menu, I’ll probably order them!

Last night I made a version which used some powerful East Asian flavours. To the blank slate that is turkey mince, I added fistfuls of chopped spring onions and fresh coriander, soy sauce and sesame oil, and an egg for binding. Though the recipe doesn’t call for it, I added panko crumbs because my turkey mince was particularly wet. I topped the meatballs with a slightly spicy, super-gingery variation on teriyaki sauce, and poured everything over brown rice.

I also imagine that any leftover meatballs would make an amazing version of the Vietnamese sandwich banh mi – smear some mayo and sriracha on crusty bread, top with some meatballs cut in half and fresh mint and coriander, and you’re in business!

Spring Onion Meatballs with Teriyaki Sauce (adapted from Canal House Cooking, vol. 3, by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer)

Serves 3-4


100g dark brown muscovado sugar
120ml water
120ml light soy sauce
120ml mirin (Japanese sweet rice wine, found in some supermarkets and Asian grocery stores)
1 thumb-sized piece ginger, roughly chopped
a pinch of whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon ground coriander


500g turkey mince
6 spring onions, finely chopped
30g bunch fresh coriander, finely chopped
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce (I used dark, but light’s fine too)
120g panko breadcrumbs (optional, use if your mixture is too wet to form balls)
freshly ground black pepper

To fry:
neutral oil (not olive)

Making the Thing

To make the sauce, in a small saucepan bring the sugar and water to a boil over a medium-high heat, until the sugar is dissolved (when you stir, you shouldn’t be able to sense any grit in the pan). Add the rest of the sauce ingredients and bring the sauce down to a simmer. Cook for approximately 30 minutes, until the sauce is reduced by half. Don’t worry if it looks liquidy – as it cools from simmering, it will thicken significantly. Strain the sauce through a sieve into a bowl.

Simmering sauce

To make the meatballs, combine all the ingredients, including the panko if necessary, in a mixing bowl. Form the mix into golf-ball-sized spheres and put on a plate by the hob.

Cover the bottom of a skillet with oil, and heat over a medium-high flame. Fry the meatballs in two batches. Each batch will take around 7-8 minutes to cook. Turn the meatballs occasionally to make sure they cook evenly.

Crispy meatballs!

To serve up, put some starch on a plate (e.g. brown rice), place the meatballs on top, and drizzle the sauce over everything.



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