Doused with a healthy portion of gravy, stuffed between crunchy bread, or served bobbing in a piping hot soup, meatballs are prepared and served in nearly limitless ways. But for a long time in the States, meatballs meant one thing only: the plump, beefy Italian-American variety, served with spaghetti and a proper dose of thick tomato sauce.
Those rotund American specimens, though, are only the tip of the meat grinder. Like dumplings and snowflakes, meatballs come in a vast range of shapes and sizes or, more aptly, ingredients, applications, and cooking styles. When done right, they're plump, sometimes pillowy, and never dense.
So what makes a meatball? It's tricky to define. In the West, we typically think of them as formed from ground or minced meat, often mixed with bread or dairy. But in East Asia, there's a tradition, radiating out from China, of using meat chopped to a paste. Even when it comes to specific varieties, like Swedish meatballs or Spanish albondigas, it's a fool's errand to be too specific with definitions. People make them as they like them, subbing out spices or baking instead of frying. And across the globe, protein choices all depend on whose kitchen you're in. Lamb, pork liver, even fish: it doesn't matter what kind of meat, or even how it's cooked—to qualify as a meatball, it just has to wind up (relatively) rotund in shape. Flatten ground beef into a patty and you've got a hamburger; make it look like Pullman bread and you have meatloaf. Sure, it's semantical, but the distinctions have their roots in history.
What truly unites meatballs across the globe—beyond plain old deliciousness—is a tradition of stretching meager portions of meat into something more sustaining, flavorful, and visually impressive. The last part is key, because for most of history, the expensiveness of meat and the labor-intensive process of chopping it meant that meatballs weren't exactly cheap. In Italy, for example, polpette tended to contain more bread—a less expensive and more readily available ingredient—than our American meatballs do. Meat has historically been more seasonal, and took significantly more labor and time to prepare without the modern equipment we have on-hand today.
Without further distraction, here's our guide to a handful of the world's most delicious varieties, from Bangladesh to New York. Meatballs of the world unite!
No scholar we know of has yet taken up the prestigious task of establishing just where meatballs originated, the general consensus is that they hail from Persia. This is the birthplace of kofta; from there, variations radiate like an asteroid belt circling a star. Persians introduced the dish to Arabs, who in turn brought it to the Italians; the Spanish were gifted their albondigas from the Arabs, or Berbers, who hailed from North Africa.
Today, you'll find kofta as far west as the Balkans and Morocco, in Turkey (famously home to innumerable varieties) and Greece, through the Arab world and Iran, and all the way to India and Bangladesh. Even in locales where the population is not Muslim, you won't find kofta made with pork, but rather beef, lamb, or fish. How the kofta are cooked and served depends on where you're eating them. Here are a few types that, in their distinctiveness, capture just how wide the world of kofta truly is.
Moroccan Kefta Mkaouara
Moroccans cook many kinds of meatballs, like kwari bilbeid (served in a harissa tomato and sauce and stuffed with egg), but their most celebrated addition to the kofta cannon is likely kefta mkaouara. Cooked in a tajine, an ancient clay pot of Berber origin, mkaouara is a stew of meatballs and eggs cooked in a spicy tomato sauce—think shakshuka in double deluxe mode. The meatballs are made of lamb and seasoned with herbs, paprika, and cumin. First browned and then finished in the zesty sauce, the resulting dish resides at the delicious intersection of ancient North African tradition and Persian-Arab culinary influence.
Often served as an appetizer, keftedes are one of Greece's most popular styles of meatballs, many of which fall into the grand kofta tradition. They're made with lamb and sometimes beef, mixed with soaked bread, garlic, and oregano, and then fried until crisp and juicy. As an appetizer, they're served with tzatziki, but can be accompanied by rice or served in a tomato sauce for a full meal.
Turkish Cig Köfte
Turkey may not be the birthplace of kofta, but the country's cooks have made the dish all their own, and they're known for producing an enormous variety. No one kofta can define Turkey's vast offerings, which some say total over 200, each with their own specific prescriptions for ingredients, sauces (or not!), and cooking method. Here, you will find everything from meatballs cooked into a casserole with tomatoes, potatoes, and peppers (Izmur köftesi) to meatballs made of ground meat mixed with rice and boiled in a sour soup (Ekşili köfte). Perhaps most unique of all, though, are cig köfte, a meatball that requires no cooking at all, made of well-seasoned raw minced meat mixed with ground wheat. Shaped by hand, the delicate meatballs bear the imprints of its maker's fingers.
Bangladesh Chitol Macher Kofta
If you're skeptical about fish meatballs, you must have never had the pleasure of encountering a bowl of chitol macher kofta. In Bangladesh, a Muslim country sliced up by rivers that give it more coastline than anywhere else in the world, fish is life. For these kofta, minced fish, seasoned with chilies, garlic, and spices like cumin, is first fried and then added to a thick gravy. At Neerob in New York City, where owner Khokon Rhaman uses family recipes from his hometown of Old Dhaka, the gravy is cream-based (anathema to Italians, but absolutely delicious), though not all recipes call for dairy. Regardless, most tend to be heady and invigorating with the typical flavors of the region: onion, green chilies, cumin, coriander, ginger, and turmeric.
Like kofta before them, albondigas spread with empire. You'll find them throughout the Spanish-speaking world, from Oaxaca to the Philippines, where they've been adapted to local preferences and means. In Spain, they're a common item on tapas menus, made with a mix of veal and pork, and poached in a variety of sauces, from tomato and garlic to almond. Mexicans defer to pork, often stuffing their meatballs with egg and serving them in a light broth or smoky chipotle sauce. And in the Philippines, where they call them almondigas, they're served with broth and rice noodles.
Onions and liver, but nothing like grandma made it—unless, of course, your nan happened to be from Wales or Yorkshire. If you've secretly harbored a feeling that meatballs have been lacking in the organ meat department, these are the ones for you. Ground pork is given a rich, funky boost from liver and heart then wrapped in caul fat and roasted. (Interestingly, there are several dishes of liver cooked in caul fat like the Italian fegatelli.) The onion comes into play in the stock-based gravy, and the typical accompaniments are, of course, mashed potatoes and buttered peas.
English colonists brought faggots with them to South Africa, where the cuisine is equally influenced by the native and Dutch colonists. Pork meat is replaced by beef, venison and even ostrich, heart is subbed out for bacon, while nutmeg adds warmth and currants a touch of fruity sweetness.
Meatballs in Italy aren't quite the statement pieces that their American cousins have become. Made of beef or veal, they're rather small in comparison, simply fried or baked, and usually served without sauce. Sometimes you'll find cheese or cured meats inside them, touches that guarantee you'll forget all about that missing Sunday gravy.
One of Denmark's most popular dishes (and found in many places where Danes have immigrated or colonized), frikadeller are small, slightly flattened and pan-fried meatballs made of minced pork. They're often served on open-faced sandwiches or, as with many meatballs in northern Europe, potatoes and gravy as well as cabbage.
Typically made with a mix of pork and beef, Swedish meatballs are pan-fried and often, though not always, coated in white gravy made with dairy, flour, and stock. There is no one recipe to rule them all (when it comes to meatballs, cooks play fast and loose with the rules.) But one thing is for sure: don't forget the lingonberry jam or the boiled potatoes and pressed cucumbers traditionally served alongside.
For Americans, boiling meatballs may seem like anathema, but in Germany, this dish is heralded as a Prussian masterpiece. Seasoned with the decidedly un-German ingredients of anchovies and lemon and bound with egg and cream, they're made of finely minced, delicate veal, simmered in stock, and served in a butter and wine based sauce.
As with most other countries, there's more than one type of meatball served in Poland. You'll find the fried beef or pork variety, called klopsiki, but we're much more interested in the less commonplace pulpety. The veal-based meatballs are gently poached in vegetable stock—a cooking method that groups them with the klopse of neighboring Germany. They're served in a variety of sauces made using Polish pantry staples, including mushroom and sour cream, dill, and sorrel.
A savory and immensely popular food now served as part of a snack platter at bars, bitterballen originated as a popular appetizer in homes across the Dutch countryside. It's good that they're small, too, since they're essentially bite-sized morsels of breaded and deep-fried gravy. The gravy itself is made by cooking shredded beef (or other meat) with stock and seasonings, resulting in smooth textured ragout. Crispy on the outside, rich and creamy within.
Many meatballs in northern Europe are served with a side of potatoes. But why serve potatoes as a supplement to the big show when you can just go ahead and add them to your freakin' meatballs? In Romania they do just that, mixing the tubers into their pork-based, fried balls, for the meatballs of every starch lover's dreams. They're often served naked, with a mustard, tomato, or sour cream dip on the side, but you'll also find them packed into hearty sandwiches.
Tender, flecked with breadcrumbs, herbs, and immodestly large, meatballs—to give them any further designation would be blasphemy—are an American classic. They originated with impoverished Italian immigrants in New York, who, as the story goes, began serving them over spaghetti with tomato sauce to disguise the meager portions. But as their fortunes increased, the meatballs ballooned in size and the tomato sauce became thicker. They're still served today over spaghetti, a foundational dish of Italian-American cuisine, but we'll take them in a hero, covered in melted mozzarella, any day.
Hailing from the eastern Chinese province of Jiangsu, lion's head are soft, large meatballs made with a mix of minced fatty pork and water chestnuts. They're almost always served with cabbage, said to be the mane to the meatball's head. Texturally, they're meant to be tender and pillowy, not unlike classic fish balls. Seasonings include the likes of ginger, rice wine, and sesame oil, but recipes vary from kitchen to kitchen. Still, they tend to be cooked through stewing, braising, or simmering in soup, and often end up in casseroles. Some cooks don't hesitate to break out the fryer; others fry and then steam or simmer them to serve.
Now a popular dish in the Indonesian repertoire, bakso originated with Chinese immigrants, who brought with them their tradition of beef and fish balls. (If you've ever spent a Sunday gorging yourself on dim sum, you've probably encountered ngao yuk kau or steamed beef balls served with tofu skin.) These meatballs are made with surimi, a kind of meat paste (though the West is more accustomed to fish-based surimi), which gives them a notably springy texture. Made with beef, chicken, pork, or fish, they're small and nearly always served in a thin broth with noodles and various accoutrements like fried shallots and bean sprouts.
Like gravy and a side of potatoes in northern Europe, bouncy meatballs served in soup is just how it's done in Southeast Asia. In Vietnam, that soup is—you guessed it—pho. Like bakso, bò viên are a legacy of the culinary influence of Chinese immigrants. When made properly, the meat (typically beef, but also chicken or pork) is chopped to a wet paste, and cooked into a springy ball. In pho, it offers a chewy contrast to the smooth slurps of broth and an economical way to toss in some more meat.
Breaking from their East Asian neighbors, the Japanese sub out the bouncy texture of the Chinese beef ball tradition for the smoky joy of a good grilling. Ground chicken, seasoned and thickened with starch, is cooked over charcoal in the yakitori style and brushed with tare, a sweet soy sauce that gives this meatball a burnished glaze.