Food & Drink

Planet Meatball: 11 exotic meatballs from around the world

Hard truth: spaghetti and meatballs? Not Italian. It was popularized in the United States in the first half of the 20th century. Harder truth: meatballs aren’t even Italian in origin. Most likely a product of the Middle East in the 2nd century, the meatball has since spread far and wide to every corner of the planet. Take a tour with us while we ameliorate those hard truths with a culinary survey of the globe...of meat.

Kofte

From “koofteh”, meaning “pounded or ground meat”, this is the ur meatball, a product of Persian ingenuity that rolled its way into the hearts of everyone who tasted it along trade routes all the way to India. Often composed of lamb, fruits, and cheese, and glazed with egg yolk, preparations for kofte vary for every region that they’ve touched, but if you want to get really OG (original grinder), spear it and cook over an open flame

Albóndigas

Spain’s twist on the meatball isn’t even Spain’s at all. An innovation brought to the country during Muslim rule starting in the 8th century AD, this is most likely a remixed Berber dish, its name a corruption of the Arabic word for hazelnut, “al-bunduq” (as opposed to the Arabic word for nutty dad, “Al Bundy”). Looking to make your own? Start with lamb, throw in some mint and rice, and add to a stew of stock and vegetables.

Kotleti

The kotleti is a classic example of slightly skewed Soviet cut-and-paste. In 1936, recently appointed food commissar Anastas Mikoyan embarked on a goodwill tour of the United States. He visited companies like Macy’s and Ford, and sampled our food, including the hamburger. He was so impressed with its efficiency as a meat delivery device that the importation into the USSR of 22 imported hamburger making machines was arranged. Soviet efforts did not produce a carbon copy, however: the bun fell out of the equation somewhere along the line, and all that was left was this beef and pork meatball with an exterior fried to a delicious crispness.

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Aidells meatballs
Image courtesy of Aidells

Exotic meatballs in your grocery store

Having a hard time translating that Arabic cookbook from the 8th century? Passport expired? Aidells has got you covered. With ten chicken-based variations on the classic ball of meat ranging from stuffing it with mozzarella to packing it with mango and jalapeño, your fluency in medieval Arabic can remain rudimentary (at best).

Köttbullar

Before it became the #1 reason to go to Ikea, the Swedish meatball was first formally named in the famed cook Cajsa Warg's 1754 cookbook Hjelpreda I Hushållningen För Unga Fruentimber (or, if your Swedish is rusty, Assistant in Housekeeping for Young Women). A longstanding classic on the Smorgasboard, these beef balls are mixed with milk-soaked bread crumbs, fried golden brown, and often served up plain, or, as anyone who has ever been to Ikea can tell you, with lingonberry sauce.

Tsukune
Rosann Yip

Tsukune

Japanese yakitori, or grilled chicken, has been around since at least the Meji Restoration period of the late 19th century. All kinds of cuts -- including gristle thrown out by the higher-end places, since chicken was something of a luxury item -- would find a home on a yakitori joint’s skewers before an open charcoal fire. Today, you’re less likely to find gristle in your tsukune, a chicken meatball cooked yakitori style (it is street food, after all), but you’re very likely to find it in any stand you walk into. Heck, even those high-end joints that once supplied the gristle of Meji yakitori stands are now cookin' up heirloom chicken tsukune.

Xíu mại bahn mi

A Vietnamese pork meatball by way of Southern China’s Canton region nestled in a French baguette. You’d be right if you recognize siu mai, the pork dumpling out of Southern China, in the name for this culinary mashup, but siu mai have been around for thousands of years, and the persistence of tomato sauce across all recipes of xiu mai seems to intimate that they probably haven’t been around as long as that (and may in fact be a Vietnamese take on a meatball sub, as bizarre as that sounds).

Scotch Egg

The Scotch egg is, of course, not Scottish… but we are making a claim that it is a meatball! Various historical accounts attribute its creation to London department store Fortnum & Mason (also renown for introducing the world to Henry J. Heinz’s Baked Beans) in 1738; the Indian Nargisi Kofta, which ensconces a boiled egg in mincemeat from import in the late 19th century; or North African dishes of the same type from the time of Elizabeth I. Regardless, the Scotch egg we recognize today -- a boiled egg encased in sausage meat which is then coated in breadcrumbs and baked or fried up -- has dominated the British picnic scene for nigh on 400 years.

Almondigas

Sounds suspiciously close to albóndigas, eh? That’s because the Spanish brought their tapas superstar with them when they went to colonize the Philippines nearly a millenium after meatballs infiltrated Spain. Putting a local twist on the import, Philippine meatballs (also called “bola-bola”) are fried and then are served over a thin Chinese noodle called miusa or miwsa.

Königsbeger Klopse

Though the German city of Königsberg may be no more (today it’s known as Kalingrad following its annexation to Russia at the close of WWII), these meatballs remain one of its longest legacies, and certainly its tastiest. Accredited to a Knönigsberger businessman who first had the bright idea to combine beef, pork, veal, or some combination thereof with sardines, boil them in broth, and serve them up in a cream sauce 200 years ago, these meatballs have survived to become an iconic German national dish -- and even orderable in Kalingrad.

Frikadeller

Literally meaning “pure pork”, you can probably guess what goes into these Danish meatballs (spoiler: it’s pork). Originating as early as 1648, it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that the Danes deigned to name them “Frikadelle”. Nowadays these flat top fried meatballs are considered their national dish, and you can often find it served up alongside pickled beets and potatoes.

Shi zi tou

A product of China’s Yangzhou province circa the 6th century, the “lion’s head” has remained a roaring Shanghai success ever since. Though variations exist up and down the Yangtze, the central conceit remains the same: a big ol’ honkin’ ball of pork cooked by boiling, floating in a clear meat broth with a mane of cabbage.