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Aside from vegan and vegetarians who doesn’t love meatballs? Meat in ball form can be found, with wild variation, around the globe. With any luck, I’ll live long enough to eat my way through the list, and an enticing list it is. But let’s get things straight. There is one meatball variant, likely the one that Anglophone readers will first have leap into their collective minds, that is inauthentic, and we’re here to set the record straight. Italians do not eat meatballs with spaghetti. Ever. That’s an Italian-American invention. I happen to love it, but in our efforts at authenticity, it must be shunned. That said, it’s what I immediately craved when researching for this article. In the end, anything goes, but let’s take a look at the original recipes of meat in ball form from around the globe.
At its most basic, meatballs consist of ground meat (one or more varieties) rolled into a ball or oblong shape, and bound together with a little egg, milk and perhaps breadcrumbs, and with some herbs and spices added to the mix. They are then sautéed, fried or baked and, voila. So let’s take a trip around the world in…meatballs, with 7 types of meatballs.
Meatballs in Italy never touch pasta. They are a separate course, among the main courses, the meats and fish (pasta are considered first courses). They tend to be stripped down, over-sized affairs: veal and pork ground and bound with crumbs and egg, first browned in oil and then allowed to bubble in tomato sauce, then plopped on a plate with little ceremony.
My first impressions when receiving polpette in Italy are usually ones of feeling underwhelmed on seeing the near-barren dish (two or three enormous balls in a puddle of red sauce), but then of great satisfaction when eating them with a crusty loaf. Who needs pasta?
American Meatballs with Pasta
Well, I do. I love spaghetti and meatballs, but this is a hybrid of several Italian dishes, and exists only in red-check-tablecloth “red sauce joints,” as Italian-American eateries are called. The dish is basically spaghetti alla Bolognese, with a meat sauce, but the meat has been coagulated into balls which you can then happily disassemble into your pasta. I like it better than alle Bolognese, perhaps because of the crisp caramelized hull of the meatball, which has a lovely bite to it that the soft ground meat of Bolognese sauce does not.
Turkish Meatballs: akçaabat Kofta
The Turks spread their delicacies throughout the Balkans during the Ottoman sprawl, and many nations have them to thank for a variety of meatballian dishes in the kofta family. A wide variety of rolled, ground meaty delicacies come from Turkish cuisine, including shish (the meat is elongated and wrapped around a skewer to grill over coals, and spiced with mint and parsley); tire (very thin skewers of ground meat served with a tomato butter sauce).
Akcaabat (flattened into a disc-shape, to grill crisper and cook through more easily); and the puritan inegol, made by a Turkish immigrant from Bulgaria in the 19th century and renowned for using no seasoning at all—just ground veal, lamb, salt, bicarbonate of soda and onion.
Swedish Meatballs: Kottbullar
Kottbullar, popularized by Ikea, flesh out their ground meat with bread soaked in milk and cream, and are served with potatoes, a brown gravy and a sauce made with lingonberries. Modest variants may be found throughout Scandinavia. Legend has it that the meatball is likewise a Turkish invention, as 18th century Swedish monarch Charles XII spent time in exile in Istanbul and brought back a tasty reminder of his sojourn there. In lands where meat may have been scarce or pricy, adding breadcrumbs to make the meat more of a meal was a wise, frugal and delicious option.
Spanish Meatballs: Albondigas
Albondigas started as a Berber dish brought to Spain during its period as an Islamic caliphate. Their name derives from the Arabic al-bunuq, which means “hazelnut” but describes the shape of the meat. Romanian Romanian meatballs, also popular in neighboring Moldova, are made with ground pork, watered-down mashed potatoes and spices. Called chiftele, you can also find a version made with rice as well, floating in a soup called ciorba de perisoare.
Polish meatballs come in a variety of styles, most popularly equipped with a sauce of wild mushrooms. There are running jokes about the industrially-produced fried mielony, with an array of unmentionable ingredients thought to be hidden inside to cut corners.
If you find yourself in the Netherlands on a Wednesday, you might hear someone say Woensdag, gehaktdag, meaning “Wednesday, meatball day.” It’s up to you whether that refers to the food or the hilarious 1979 Bill Murray classic of the same name—the ideal entertainment to watch while cooking a meatball recipe of your choice.
In early February, Memphis Meats, a San Francisco-based science firm, announced the development of the first meatball made from beef cells that did not require a cow to give up its life. Cultured animal muscle tissue grown from stem cells was converted into meatball form.
The company released a film of a chef frying up the meatball and a volunteer eating it, happily declaring (perhaps with some pleasant surprise) that “it tastes like a meatball!” It will be some time before cultured meat products replace traditional ones (a pound of Memphis Meats beef costs around $18,000 to produce, as opposed to around $4 per pound of cow beef), but it is on the horizon. How you will cook it is up to you!