Why It Works
- Pork fat and starch create squid balls that are bouncy and juicy.
- Partially freezing the squid and pork fat before processing them to a paste produces a uniformly textured meatball with a tight structure.
- Double-frying the squid balls produces a more golden, crispier exterior.
One of the most prized textures in Taiwanese cuisine is an elusive concept known as Q—which is pronounced exactly the same way in Mandarin Chinese as it is in English. Q is an adjective which is often mistranslated as "al dente." But Q doesn't just mean al dente; Q describes a meatball you can forcefully bounce on a table and have it hit you right back in the head. It describes a food that is both elastic and chewy, like warm tapioca pearls soaked in brown sugar, or springy, alkaline noodles. It’s more reminiscent of a gummy bear than a perfectly cooked strand of spaghetti.
And while there are many dishes that meet this abstract, sought-after criteria, few things embody it better than Taiwan’s wide and diverse range of meatballs. In fact, some meatballs are so Q, you can literally play table tennis with them. Some Taiwanese researchers have even designed elaborate bouncing tests to quantify the elasticity of different fish balls.
There’s nothing fancy to it. All around the world, meatballs were traditionally just a way to make use of scraps and leftovers. In Taiwan in particular, catches of unsold fish and miscellaneous shellfish are pulverized together with starch to form a batter, shaped into balls, and cooked in barely simmering water to form the foundation of a beautiful meal. “Back then we just had too much fish,” Huang Shao-Wei, the second-generation owner of a Taiwanese cuttlefish ball company called Hong Yu tells me. “We are an island, after all.”
Unlike Western meatballs, which are often made by loosely packing together clumps of meat, Taiwanese meatballs have a tight, elastic structure. The boiled renditions are usually served in a clear pork broth soup with cubes of daikon and garnished with a light sprinkling of celery leaves. Deep-fried meatballs, meanwhile, are eaten as on-the-go snacks with a dash of white pepper.
Every company has their own recipe, but there are some general rules they observe.
For one, all meatballs have to be infused with a heap of fat. Fat is essential to keeping the balls juicy. Second: For balls made out of seafood, a bit of starch is mandatory to help increase the mixture's ability to retain water and give it improved structure, similar to how filling a balloon with additional water makes it feel tighter. Without the starch, the seafood ball will come out mushy and lack that essential Q. In Taiwan, the de facto starches are sweet potato and tapioca starch. I personally prefer the former because it produces a firmer texture, though the two are often used interchangeably or mixed together.
As with sausage-making, it's extremely important to partially freeze whatever meat you’re working with. Cold temperatures help the fish proteins bond properly and prevent the fat from smearing (i.e., melting prematurely), which can produce a mealy texture. I have tried making meat and seafood balls with both room temperature and frozen meat and the results are clear. The former made a really depressing meatball that had more of a spongy texture; it literally fell flat. But the latter gave me a ball I happily bounced off of my kitchen wall.
This recipe for squid balls is one I developed based on interviews with two cuttlefish-ball specialists in Taiwan; here I use squid, which is an easy substitute for cuttlefish. It is, fundamentally, just squid blended together with starch and fat. Unlike pork sausages, which should be cohesive and moist but not too rubbery, these balls are prized for their elastic texture—which is achieved by first grinding the mollusk so finely that it’s slimy.
“You have to boil it in water to keep the ball’s shape, and then deep-fry it afterwards,” advises Hsu Kuang-Yang, the owner of Dahan Seafood Company, another cuttlefish ball company in Taiwan.
According to Huang, the mark of a great squid ball is one with a greater amount of squid than starch. “You can tell if it’s bad quality when it shrinks after you deep-fry it,” says Huang. “It means it has too much starch.” Huang also recommends folding in hand-minced chunks of squid at the very end to give it a bit of texture, and Hsu says to rest the pulverized meat for a couple hours to allow the starch to absorb more of the squid's liquid. Both use dense pork fatback as their fat of choice, but because pork fatback can be difficult to procure for the average home cook, I’ve substituted it with pork belly, which I find works just as well even with its higher amount of muscle relative to fatback.
After the squid balls are shaped and boiled in water, they are double-fried in a wok and come out a gorgeous light golden brown. While you can fry the squid balls in any large, deep vessel, a wok is one of the best choices for deep frying, since its wide, flared sides contain splatter and mess, and its thin, usually carbon-steel walls, are responsive to changes in heat, making it easier to regulate the frying temperature.
“Once fried, the squid balls should be a bit crunchy,” says Huang. I personally like stringing them on a long skewer and seasoning them with a heavy-hand of white pepper, night market–style, but you’re welcome to enjoy them however you like.
- 12 ounces (340g) cleaned squid bodies (about 4 medium squid), cut into 1-inch squares, divided
- 2 1/3 ounces (75g) skinless fatty pork belly or pork fatback, cut into 1-inch cubes
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (6g) granulated sugar
- 3 teaspoons (9g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt, plus more to taste; for table salt use half the volume or the same weight
- Scant 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper, plus more to taste
- 1/4 cup plus 3 tablespoons (55g) sweet potato or tapioca starch
- 1 ounce (28g) ice (about 1 ice cube)
- 6 cups peanut, canola, or other neutral oil, for deep-frying
Rinse the squid under running water, then pat dry with paper towels.
Mince 1 ounce of the squid, transfer to an airtight container, and refrigerate.
In a medium bowl, thoroughly mix the remaining squid with the pork, sugar, salt, and ground white pepper. Cover tightly and freeze until partially frozen, about 2 hours.
In a high-powered blender or food processor, combine the partially frozen pork and squid mixture with sweet potato starch and ice and process on high-speed, scraping down the sides as necessary, until it forms a smooth, sticky, shiny paste, about 3 minutes; it should be completely smooth with no visible lumps of squid or pork or shards of ice.
Transfer the paste to a large bowl or container and stir in the refrigerated minced squid until evenly incorporated. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 or up to 8 hours.
Bring a large pot of water to a simmer over medium-low heat until tiny bubbles begin to break on the surface of the water. Turn off the heat. Using wet (preferably latex-gloved) hands, grab a handful of the paste and squeeze it up through a hole formed by your index finger and thumb (like making the "okay" gesture) until a golf-ball size ball forms, then squeeze to pinch the ball off and release into the water; make sure to squeeze tightly when shaping the balls to minimize air pockets. Alternatively, using a wet spoon, scoop out golf-ball-size portions of the squid paste mixture and, using a second wet spoon, gently form into a rough ball shape before releasing into the water. When all the squid balls are in the water, turn the heat up to high and bring to a rolling boil, then lower the heat to maintain a brisk simmer and cook until balls are completely cooked through, about 5 minutes. Drain the squid balls in a colander and shake to dry. Transfer to a paper towel–lined plate and thoroughly pat dry with additional paper towels (it’s important to dry the squid balls as much as possible to avoid splattering when frying). Let air-dry for 15 minutes before frying.
In a wok or Dutch oven, heat oil over high heat until it reaches 375°F (190°C). Using a spider-skimmer, carefully lower half of the squid balls into the oil. The oil temperature should drop when you add the squid balls; adjust the heat to maintain a frying temperature of 350°F (175°C). Deep-fry, stirring often and carefully breaking apart any balls that have stuck together, until balls are beige and slightly crisp around the edges, about 4 minutes; be careful, as squid balls can pop and spatter during frying. Transfer squid balls to paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining balls.
Return oil to 375°F (190°C), then add half of the fried squid balls back to oil and fry a second time, maintaining a temperature of 350°F (175°C), until squid balls turn a light golden brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer squid balls to fresh paper towels to drain and repeat with remaining squid balls.
Season squid balls with ground white pepper and additional salt, if desired. Serve hot.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Deep-fried squid balls can be frozen in a freezer bag for up to 3 months. Reheat in an oven set at 400°F (200°C) or in a microwave.