Pearl Balls


Preparation info

  • Difficulty


  • Yields about 25 meatballs, enough to serve


    as a main course .

Appears in

Light, succulent, and disarmingly pretty, these little meatballs of marinated pork dressed in a mantle of sweet rice charm most everyone who eats them. When I served them to one old China hand, she said they reminded her of the food in Kun-ming, in southwest China, in the 1940s. And that is their special beauty—with their simple elegance and gracefully subtle flavor, Pearl Balls exemplify real Chinese cooking at its classic best.

  • “Pearl balls” in the literary tongue are “porcupine balls” in colloquial slang. Both names refer to the pleasantly glutinous rice that swells around the meatballs as they steam. You can buy it in Chinese markets, where you should also hunt for fresh water chestnuts. They, as much as anything, make this dish distinctive. If you cannot find them, substitute jicama, a large tuber with a crisp white flesh that has the texture although not quite the sweetness of fresh water chestnuts. Only as a last resort use canned water chestnuts, and then only use a brand that is crisp to the bite.
  • Pearl Balls are extremely practical party food. They can be started several days ahead, and then left to steam for hours—off in a comer on a hot plate if you need to free up your stove. They are also very portable. On many a catering job I’ve nestled the meatballs in the back of the car, piled the steamers up front, and set off with a bit of old China in tow.

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Meatball mixture

  • 4 large Chinese dried black mushrooms
  • 6–8 large water chestnuts, fresh best (to yield about ½ cup chopped)
  • 1 walnut-size nugget fresh ginger
  • 1 thin whole scallion, cut into 1½-inch lengths
  • ¾ pound ground pork butt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tablespoon thin (regular) soy sauce
  • teaspoons coarse kosher salt
  • scant ½ cup unsalted chicken stock

Dipping sauce


Preparing the rice, mushrooms, and water chestnuts

Cover the rice with 4 cups cold water. Soak at least 1 hour, or overnight if you wish, stirring occasionally to loosen the talc. Shortly before using, drain the rice in a colander, rinse under cold running water until the water is clear, then put aside to drain. The rice should be moist when you use it. It will adhere more easily to the meat.

Cover the mushrooms with cold or hot water, then soak until soft and spongy, 20 minutes to an hour. Rinse the caps to dislodge any sand trapped in the gills, then snip off the stems with scissors and chop the caps into peppercorn-size bits.

Peel fresh water chestnuts. Drain and blanch canned water chestnuts in plain boiling water for 15 seconds, drain, and rush immediately under cold water until chilled. Chop the water chestnuts into tiny peppercorn-size cubes, by hand to retain their special texture.

The chopped mushrooms and water chestnuts may be sprinkled lightly with water, sealed airtight, and refrigerated overnight.

Making the meat purée

Mince the ginger and scallion in the dry work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel knife, scraping down as necessary until fine. Add the pork, egg, soy, salt, and stock, then process with on-off turns until combined. Do not overprocess to a paste. Scrape the mixture into a bowl. It will be very loose. Add the chopped mushrooms and water chestnuts, then stir by hand in one direction to blend. (Stirring in one direction prevents the meat from compacting and keeps it light.)

If you don’t have a food processor, mince the scallion and ginger by hand, and chop the pork with one or two evenly weighted knives to reduce it to a fine consistency. Blend well with the remaining ingredients, stirring briskly in one direction until the mixture coheres.

The mixture may be refrigerated up to 24 hours, with a sheet of plastic film pressed directly on the surface of the meat to form an airtight seal. Stir to recombine before shaping the meatballs.

Assembling the meatballs

Spread the rice in a thick, even layer in a jelly-roll pan or baking pan. Place the meat mixture, a bowl of cold water, and a teaspoon alongside. If you are steaming the meatballs immediately, liberally oil the bottom of a steaming rack with sesame oil or com or peanut oil to prevent the rice from sticking to it. If you wish to refrigerate the meatballs several hours or overnight, line a baking sheet with wax paper. Put the prepared steaming rack or baking sheet within reach.

Dip your palms and the spoon in the water so that the meat will not stick to them. Scoop up 1 tablespoon of the meat mixture, roll it in the rice, and gently shape it with your hands as described in TECHNIQUE NOTES. Do not press the rice into the meat. You need only to pat and shape the ball to make it adhere. Put the meatball on the rack or lined sheet and continue until the meat is used up, spacing the finished pearl balls 1 inch apart.

If you are refrigerating the meatballs, seal them airtight by bagging the baking sheet in a large plastic bag from the cleaners, or cover loosely with plastic film so the soft meat will not be squashed. Bring to room temperature before steaming and arrange 1 inch apart to allow for the swelling of the rice on a well-oiled steaming rack.

Steaming the meatballs

(For details on steaming and how to improvise a steamer.)

Choose the largest possible vessel to fit under your steamer, to avoid having to refill it frequently during the lengthy steaming. Fill with water to come 1 inch below the rack, then bring the water to a gushing boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium-high, then steam the meatballs for 1½–2 hours, replenishing the pot with boiling water as required. About 15 minutes prior to serving, prepare the dipping sauce.

Serve the pearl balls directly in the steamer, if you have an attractive bamboo one. Or, remove the meatballs to a heated serving platter of a color to contrast prettily with the rice. Dribble ⅛–¼ teaspoon of the dipping sauce on top of each meatball before serving. If you wish, garnish the steamer or the platter with some green leaves to highlight the ivory luster of the rice.

To eat the meatballs Chinese-style

Hold a small porcelain spoon in one hand and chopsticks in the other. Scoop the meatball onto the spoon with the help of the chopsticks, then bring it almost to your mouth on the spoon. Use the chopsticks to lift the meatball and complete the journey. Keep the spoon in place just below, to hold what you can’t take in one mouthful and to act as a face-saver or lap-saver should the meatball slip from your grasp.

Leftovers are good resteamed or may be eaten at room temperature if you like cold rice. The rice grows more glutinous with resteaming.