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Have yourself a ball

By Pauline D Loh | China Daily | Updated: 2018-10-06 15:51
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It's a dish found in cuisines the world over, but in China, the meatball is an opportunity for the chef to stretch his imagination.

Meatballs are family favorites all over the world, but only the Chinese are so obsessed that they make "meatballs" with anything they can lay their hands on - beef, pork, fish, prawn, squid, mushroom and even tofu.

In a cuisine that boasts 5,000 years of history, the evolution of the Chinese meatball has been inevitable. What surprises food historians is that, compared with the Western version, which has stayed true to the original recipe throughout the centuries, the Chinese meatball comes in all sizes, flavors and textures.

Texture is especially important. The bounce is the thing, and a good fish meatball or a beef ball must have a springy bite and the potential to bounce off the wall.

Most meatballs are produced as a result of the inherent frugality of the Chinese cook. In coastal villages where fishing is the main livelihood, the remnants of the catch left unsold are often brought home by the fishermen.

Here, the fish are scaled, skinned and every bit of meat is scraped off with the back of a knife or spoon. The meat is then finely minced and beaten in one direction until the natural collagens combine and stick. Heavily saturated saltwater is sprinkled on the meat as it is vigorously worked, a technique that both tightens the texture and flavors the meat. The resulting paste is then squeezed between thumb and index finger into smooth balls that are dropped into cold water, or cooked in boiling water.

Fish balls are sold either raw, soaked in light brine or cooked. They are popular when served with noodles or deep-fried as snacks. In Hong Kong, the popular noodle carts serve up fish balls in curry sauce.

Prawns, squid and crab meat are also pounded into similar meatballs. Sometimes flying fish roe is added to the paste for an effect that's very much like popping candy. However, they come, the fishy dish has become popular all over the country, especially as part of platters assembled for steamboats or hotpots.

Moving from surf, to turf, in Chaoshan, there is the signature beef ball that squirts juice at the unsuspecting. It is a bouncy meatball that is literally hammered into a paste.

A huge slab of lean beef is carefully trimmed to an even thickness, with all visible tendons and fibers painstakingly removed. With the prepared beef laid flat on an immense chopping board, the chef gets comfortable - adopting an almost martial art-like stance - and starts hitting the meat with a long, thick rolling pin in each hand.

The rhythmic pounding will go on for an hour or so, and the meat turns to paste under the bludgeoning force of the rolling pins. Occasionally, the chef will stop his assault to add a sprinkle of brine and a dusting of sweet potato starch.

These are the plain beef balls. Pure beef. There are other variations, like tendon meatballs made with the trimmed-off sections, and a filled meatball with finely pulverized meat mixed with melted beef fat.

The beef balls are extremely juicy, and the filled version will splatter the careless diner with a burst of beef fat and juice upon first bite.

In contrast, meatballs made with pork emphasize the natural flavor and texture of the meat. From the tiny meatballs blanched in Cantonese porridge to the delicately hand-cut lion's head meatball from Nanjing, pork meatballs are never overprocessed.

Instead, the chef chooses a cut that has equal amounts of fat and muscle, even a bit of gelatinous skin, preferring to let the meat speak for itself.

Cantonese meatballs mostly use a ratio of 70 to 30 minced lean meat to fat for the best mouth feel. Chefs may also add finely diced pickled vegetables for a bit of crunch. They are mostly cooked in soup or blanched in piping hot, silky smooth rice congee.

Shizitou - The Nanjing lion's head meatball - on the other hand, uses only the best strips of pork belly. These are hand-cut into slices and are then julienned before being diced. The reason for this fastidious process is to ensure that every morsel of pork has the proper proportion of fat to meat.

The cut meat is then stirred in one direction until it clumps. The chef will then shape each huge meatball into a perfect sphere and steam it gently in a rich broth. The meatball is then served on a bed of Shanghai cabbage and thickened stock is drizzled over it.

A well-made lion's head will hold its shape until the first chopsticks touch it, upon which it will fall apart, exposing its tender heart.

In the northern provinces, meatballs are a festive dish. Sixiwanzi, four balls of happiness, are served at birthdays, weddings and the reunion meal on the eve of Spring Festival. It is made like the lion's head, but with a minced mixture.

The meatballs are formed, and then deep-fried for color. They are then steamed until they are completely cooked. A rich brown gravy, flavored with star anise and cinnamon, completes the dish, a testimony to the stronger flavors preferred by northern palates.

Whatever the size or ingredient, the meatball is an easy staple for the home dining table. It may be pure meat, or it may have fillers such as mushrooms, tofu or a mirepoix. The only limit is the chef's imagination.


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