Monday, November 4, 2013

Pearl meatballs the Hubei way

This beautiful dish incorporates all of the unique tastes of Hubei: we have here sticky rice, pork, fresh fish, and sweet water chestnuts combined in flavorful little packages. 

Most people who write of this dish present it as a straight pork meatball covered with rice, and those are fine in their way. But you have to remember that much of Hubei is water world, a lushly green paradise filled with the rivers, lakes, and streams that end up deeply coloring the cuisine.

And so, that is why you find fresh fish and water chestnuts in the mix. 

These are intensely clever touches that let you know someone put a whole lot of thought into this emblematic dish from Xiantao in central Hubei, right on the delta where the Han and Yangtze Rivers meet.

In olden days this town was known by another name, when it was famous for “the three dishes of Mianyang” (Miǎnyáng sānzhēng 沔陽三蒸) that included these pearl meatballs, rice crumb pork, and the pale meatballs known as zhēngbáiwán 蒸白丸, which are pretty much the same as this recipe minus the rice coating.

If my memory serves, a variation on this dish might have been the first real Chinese dish I ever prepared as a kid (Chun King canned chow mein notwithstanding). I seem to remember the recipe coming out of one of my mother’s hausfrau magazines, perhaps Woman’s Day or Good Housekeeping.

It looked a lot like the porcupine meatballs that were making the rounds of the suburbs in those days, minus the tomato sauce of course, and they were my first glimpse of what genuine food from China might someday taste like, albeit made that day with canned water chestnuts, supermarket pork, and whatever passed for rice in those days; might have been Uncle Ben’s for all I know. 

Fast-forward a decade, and there I am in Taipei, eating real pearl meatballs and finally understanding what the fuss was all about.

Pearl meatballs
Zhēnzhūwán 珍珠丸
Makes 3 to 4 dozen meatballs (depending upon size), serving about 6 to 8

2 cups long-grain glutinous (sticky) rice, rinsed and soaked at least 2 hours
8 ounces chilled fatback (or firm belly fat or other solid, unrendered pork fat), divided
Fresh water chestnuts
4 water chestnuts (fresh or frozen and defrosted), peeled and coarsely chopped
8 ounces chilled ground free-range pork (15% fat)
6 ounces chilled, boned, skinned flatfish of any kind, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh ginger
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon sea salt
Lots of freshly-ground black pepper (or to taste)
2 green onions, trimmed and coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
3 tablespoons cornstarch

Dipping sauce:
¼ cup any kind of chili sauce
Soy sauce and black vinegar to taste

1. Drain the rice in a sieve set in the sink while you prepare the rest of the ingredients. Have a basket steamer set up (metal works best here for cleanup) and spray the trays with oil.

2. Cut the pork fat into very small cubes and place half of it in a small work bowl with the water chestnuts. Place the other half in a food processor fitted with a metal blade, along with the ground pork, fish, and ginger. Process the meat mixture for a couple of minutes, scraping it down as needed, until you have an even, fine paste. Add the eggs, salt, pepper, green onions, rice wine, and cornstarch, and process again until they are fully incorporated and the filling is light and fluffy. Empty the filling into the bowl with the water chestnuts and fat, and then mix these together by hand. 
In the steamer

3. Put the rice in a wide, shallow bowl and place it on your work space next to the meatball mixture. Use a metal spoon to scoop up about 2 tablespoons of the meat and shape it roughly into a ball before dropping it into the rice. Repeat this a couple of times until the top of the rice is about half covered with meatballs. Then, pick up a meatball and roll it around in the rice; place it in your cupped hand and then roll it around in your hand to shape the ball. Pat on more rice if there are bald spots, and then place the finished meatball in an oiled (preferably metal, so it doesn't stick) steamer basket. Repeat with the rest of the meatballs until done, setting them about an inch apart so that they do not stick to each other. (This will probably take 3 or 4 baskets to finish.)  If you have extra rice after finishing the meatballs—and you most definitely will—use it to make some Congee or toss it in soup for a quick lunch.

4. Steam the meatballs over high heat for around 10 to 15 minutes, or until done. Serve hot with the dipping sauce. They can be served right out of the steamer baskets, if you like; the best way to do this is to steam all of the meatballs ahead of time, cool them on a baking pan (they can be refrigerated for a day or two, as well), and then placing the cold meatballs in the steaming baskets so that they barely touch before steaming them until hot.

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