It’s almost Chinese New Year, which means that it’s time to celebrate with the most delicious and impressive Chinese dishes. This year, we’re making Pearl Meatballs with Sticky Rice or zhēn zhū wán zi (珍珠丸子).
These Pearl Meatballs originated in China’s Hunan/Hubei region, where they’re considered a holiday or special occasion dish. They appear often at banquet dinners for Chinese New Year and birthdays.
Of course, the name Pearl Meatballs comes from the fact that if you squint, they look like giant pearls. The sheen of the Pearl Meatball comes from the short grain glutinous rice it’s wrapped in. Some versions of this recipe use light soy sauce for the rice, but then you lose that pearlescent glow when the meatballs come out of the steamer.
My Aunt’s Recipe
My aunt makes these Pearl Meatballs for our family’s Chinese New Year dinner every year. They are a crowd pleaser, and she makes plenty of them!
I hope she is not reading this, because over the years, we’ve learned not to be TOO enthusiastic. One eager word, and you’ll get a few more meatballs on your plate, AND she’ll emerge from the kitchen triumphantly, with one more plateful when everyone thought they had successfully finished off the last batch to make room for the many other yummy dishes on the table. Not to mention she always sends the leftovers home with us.
Her meatballs are delicious, and sometimes she likes to add some ground fish fillets to the mixture to make them more flavorful, but I decided to stick with a more traditional pearl meatballs recipe. And I have to say that these may just be better than hers…
For an impressive holiday dish, these Pearl Meatballs are actually pretty easy to whip up. But to achieve the ultimate texture, I suggest that you hand-chop the ground pork using the techniques from our “How to Grind Meat without a Meat Grinder” post to chop the pork until there are no visible chunks. This makes for a silky meatball.
It’s also important to line the steamer with parchment paper, bamboo leaves, or leaves of napa cabbage to prevent the meatballs from sticking. Any lost rice that falls off the meatballs will yield cracked pearls! Not very prosperous for the new year. I used the bamboo leaves, which I had on hand and add great aroma.
Include these Pearl Meatballs in your Chinese New Year menu––they are a feast for the eyes and the stomachs of your guests! Happy New Year, everyone!
Chinese Pearl Meatballs: Recipe Instructions
To start, soak the dried bamboo leaves by submerging them under water with the weight of a large plate. (You can do this the night before.)
Now, soak the short-grain glutinous rice in a bowl covered with at least an inch of water above the rice for about 2 hours. While the rice is soaking, prepare the meat filling.
Weigh about 13 ounces of lean pork and 3 ounces of pork fat. You can use the techniques from our post on How to Grind Meat without a Meat Grinder in Minutes, and hand-chop the pork very finely. It’s also fine to use store-bought ground pork, but make sure it’s 80% lean.
Stir to combine everything well, whipping in just *one* direction for at least 5 minutes until the filling becomes fluffy and sticky.
Cover and marinate in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. While the meat is marinating, prepare the steamer. Wash and trim the bamboo leaves, and use them to line the steamer.
After 2 hours of soaking, drain the glutinous rice, and do your best to shake off any excess water.
Remove the meat filling from the fridge after the 30 minutes has elapsed. Now it’s time to make the pearls! Take about a tablespoon of meat filling, form a ball…
And roll it in the glutinous rice so that the whole surface is coated.
Roll it between your palms lightly to ensure all the glutinous rice adheres to the meatball. Position the meatballs on the bamboo leaf with about ½ an inch of space in between each meatball.
To cook, start with cold water with the bamboo steamer covered. Steam over high heat for 20 minutes.
After steaming, turn off the heat, and let the meatballs sit with the cover on for 3 additional minutes before removing the lid.
Serve these classic Chinese Pearl Meatballs as an appetizer or as one of your family style dinner dishes!