Traveling foodie Kate Parham offers a taste of how nine different cultures prepare meatballs and shares where to try each dish.
Contrary to popular belief, spaghetti and meatballs is not an authentic Italian dish, rather one that was contrived when Italian immigrants began cooking for an American audience. This dish is chockfull of beef, and almost always served with spaghetti and marinara sauce, but at Proof in our nation's capitol, Chef Haidar Karoum puts an upscale twist on the classic: spicy balls made of beef, pork and veal are served alongside decadent goat cheese agnolotti and daubed with tomato fondue flavored with prosciutto skin and Parmesan rinds.
In Italy, meatballs (golf-ball sized rounds made from beef and/or pork with garlic, Romano cheeseand parsley) are eaten alone as an entree or in soup. And in Nashville, Rolf and Daughters chef Philip Krajek's rustic meatballs get a dry-aged funk from the local Bear Creek Farm beef, balanced by tangy tomato sauce, bitter dandelion and salty pecorino cheese.
Like many Spanish dishes, albóndigas (a tapa of small round meatballs cooked in tomato sauce) are an originally Moorish dish, imported before the 1500s. Rather than using traditional pork, beef or lamb, Atlanta's Iberian Pig opts for bold wild boar sausage and tangy piquillo peppers in their baked albóndigas — though they authentically add medjool dates, caramelized onions and pecorino cheese — all swimming in a smoky pimenton cream sauce.
Though Swedish meatballs (called köttbullar) are similar to other versions made with ground beef and pork, they differ with the addition of ground veal, fried onion, and allspice or white pepper. They're also traditionally served with gravy, boiled potatoes, lingonberry jam and pickled cucumber. At Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised chef Marcus Samuelsson's Red Rooster Harlem, you'll find his grandmother's meatballs, which are made with veal, pork, sirloin and a dab of honey, and served with braised green cabbage, creamy mashed potatoes and sweet lingonberries.
Middle Eastern and South Asian meatballs are called kofta — meaning "to grind" in Persian — though there are hundreds of variations from North Africa to Bangladesh. In India, koftas are made with minced meat (usually lamb or fish) and mixed with spices, onions, rice and bulgur, or oftentimes made vegetarian with potatoes. The cooking techniques are equally endless — some koftas are grilled, others fried, some steamed or poached, and sometimes baked and bathed in a spicy sauce. Inspired by his mother's meatballs, chef Pawan Mahendro of LA's Badmaash sears his beef koftas before slow-braising them in a spicy tomato curry made from cilantro, ginger, garlic, onion and garam masala. Expect succulent, juicy meatballs bursting with flavor.
Typically made from ground beef and pork, milk-soaked panko and onions, and dipped in a ketchup and Worcestershire sauce, hanbāgu is Japan's answer to meatballs (think meatloaf-meets-hamburger-meets-Salisbury-steak). At Washington D.C.'s Daikaya, the hanbāgu has a Hawaiianflair — their version is a braised patty made of equal parts Wagyu and Angus beef (read: incredibly moist and tender) and topped with a velvety fried egg smothered in red wine sauce.
In Shanghai, pork meatballs are spiked with soy sauce before being steamed or boiled and added to soups or supersized for a dish called lion's heads (the meatball is served on a bed of rice alongside bok choy). At chef/co-owner Kathy Fang's San Francisico restaurant, Fang, you'll find pork meatballs accented with fragrant ginger and scallions on skewers covered in a sweet pineapple glaze.
Vietnamese Xíu Mại
Like many meatballs, Vietnam's version (called Xui Mai) is often used in soups (pho and hu tieu) or cooked in tomato sauce. But in Hanoi, meatballs are grilled and served with rice noodles (bun cha) alongside a garlic and chile-laced fish sauce. Head to Dallas' Malai Kitchen for their twist on this classic: expect a crispy-on-the-outside, juicy-on-the-inside pork-laced Xíu Mại made with sweet Vietnamese caramel and served with fresh herbs, fish sauce and lettuce wraps.
Before the term had a derogatory connotation, faggots, which were created out of economic necessity, denoted meatballs in the United Kingdom. In an attempt to utilize typically-discarded pork products (think heart, liver, intestines), the Brits created faggots, fried meatballs accented with herbs and breadcrumbs. The result: spicy comfort food that's as inexpensive as it is delicious. Cottswolds-native chef Jason Hicks of Manhattan's Jones Wood Foundry is bringing the classic back with bang — his version, reminiscent of pate, employs pork offal wrapped in pork caul fat in the meatball itself, which is served on a bed of mashed potatoes with red wine onion gravy.