East-West Spaghetti and Meatballs

The title of this recipe is not what my mother called this dish, of course. But she made the best-tasting version of spaghetti and meatballs I have ever enjoyed. I did not know what her recipe was until I first tasted the famous Shanghai dish called Lionhead Meatballs. Then I realized that she had simply substituted readily available Western ingredients and blended things together perfectly. For example, she used beef instead of the original pork and mixed the traditional fresh water chestnuts, ginger, spring onions and onion into a spicy tomato sauce. She also used Italian pasta: a true Chinese-American-Italian creation. The Chinese have many forms of pasta, but the Italian semolina-durum wheat blends, which are not readily available in China, make the very best pastas. And, in true Italian fashion, my mother never overcooked her pasta, thus preserving its bite and its clean, delicate, nut-like flavour. Paired with her Shanghai-inspired meatballs, this is a meal fit for pasta lovers of Chinese-Italian-American or any other ethnic mix.

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  • 450 g (1 lb) Italian spaghetti

For the Tomato Sauce

  • 1½ tablespoons olive oil
  • 150 g (5½ oz) chopped red onions
  • 4 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
  • 2 teaspoons finely chopped fresh ginger
  • 2 × 400 g (14 oz) cans chopped tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Meatballs

  • 450 g (1 lb) minced beef
  • 1 egg white
  • 2 tablespoons cold water
  • 225 g (8 oz) fresh water chestnuts, peeled and coarsely chopped, or 175 g (6 oz) canned water chestnuts, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons light soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
  • 1 teaspoon five-spice powder
  • 2 teaspoons sugar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Potato flour, for dusting
  • 4 tablespoons groundnut oil


Heat a heavy saucepan and swirl in the olive oil. When it is hot, toss in the onions, garlic and ginger and cook for 2 minutes over a medium heat. Then dump in the tomatoes, sugar, salt and pepper, lower the heat, and cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Set aside.

Put the beef in a food processor and mix with the egg white and cold water for 1 minute. The mixture should be light and fluffy. Do not use a blender, which would make the mixture too dense. Then toss in the water chestnuts, soy sauces, rice wine, five-spice powder, sugar, salt and pepper and mix for another 30 seconds. The mixture should be slightly coarse, with the water chestnuts adding texture.

Divide the mixture into 16 equal parts and roll each part into a large ball. Dust each meatball with the potato flour. Heat a wok until it is hot, then swirl in 2 tablespoons of groundnut oil. When the oil is hot and slightly smoking, drop in half the meatballs, turn the heat down and slowly brown them all over. Swirl in the remaining groundnut oil and fry the remaining meatballs. Drain them on kitchen paper.

Place the meatballs in the cooked tomato sauce, cover and simmer for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to the packet instructions or to your taste and drain well.

Arrange the pasta on a platter, lay the meatballs on top, pour the sauce over the dish and serve at once.