Pork 27: Babao Meatballs (八寶肉圓)

“Take one portion of lean pork and one of fatty pork and mince them into a fine paste. Take pine-nuts, shitake, the tips of bamboo shoots, water chestnuts, soy-pickled cucumbers and ginger, then mince them into a fine paste as well. Combine everything with powdered starch and shape the mixture into balls. Place the meatballs on a dish and steam with sweet wine and autumn sauce. When eaten, the texture of the meatballs should be crisp and tender. Jia Zhihua once said: “To make meatballs, the meat should be finely cut and not chopped”. There is truth in his statement.”

持牲單::八寶肉圓
豬肉精、肥各半,斬成細醬,用松仁、香蕈、筍尖、荸薺、瓜薑之類,斬成細醬,加芡粉和捏成團,放八盤中,加甜酒、秋油蒸之。入口鬆脆。家致華雲︰「肉圓宜切,不宜斬。」必別有所見。

The bejewelled meatballs described by Yuan Mei probably looked something like this, albeit with ingredients that are more finely minced. (Credit: jules / stonesoup)

An “eight treasured” dish with only six side ingredients? Quaint. But truth is this recipe is missing more than just ingredients, it is missing a huge chunk of information on technique.

In order to have meatballs with that “crisp and tender” texture of good fishballs, you need to beat the pork mixture for quite a while with salt. If you made the meatballs exactly according to Yuan Mei’s instructions, what you would get are loose, floury meatballs like those from IKEA that don’t have much of any texture. By machine, mixing and beating the meat mixture for texture takes a good half an hour, by hand, this would have taken a lot lot longer.

The final statement extolling meatballs made with finely cut pork makes a good deal of sense. For the same reasons why coffee ground using mills are better than that ground using blade grinders, finely cut the pork produces minced pork with more even particle sizes. This evenly minced pork in turn produces meatballs with a more consistent and enjoyable texture. As for how long it would have taken to finely cut enough pork for one’s meatballs, I could not imagine.

Thank goodness for modern food processing machines.

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2 thoughts on “Pork 27: Babao Meatballs (八寶肉圓)”

  1. Thanks so much for translating this recipe book! It’s been really helpful as I’ve trying to cook historical food. A couple of your recipes reference autumn sauce, but I can’t find anymore info on this. Does the recipe book explain what autumn sauce is?

    1. You’re welcome! I’m glad you found this useful for cooking historical foods. Autumn sauce was a high quality soy-sauce produced in Zhejiang that was brewed the previous year, aged, and extracted during autumn. Basically, just get a good quality soy-sauce to substitute.

      I’ve cooked a few of the recipes from the Suiyuan Shidan but the results had been rather so-so, still and there’s a lot of space for interpretation from the text. If you have a website or blog for your historical cooking, please do share it here!

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