Thursday, September 3, 2015

Pearl Balls . . . a Chinese favorite!

By Phyllis Louise Harris
September 2015

When people talk to me about Chinese food they usually mention their favorite dish. Egg rolls, dumplings, sweet and sour pork, sesame chicken, fried rice and chow mein are some of the choices that come up most often. The trouble is there are thousands of Chinese dishes and we only seem to focus on just a few.

Even the huge menu at Shuang Cheng does not begin to list them all. And dim sum restaurants still fall short on the choices that could be included. My own childhood world of chow mein and chop suey from the Nankin or John’s Place was so limited that is all I thought was available. And, then I went to the China Institute in New York City and had a culinary awakening.

In the 14 years I spent in cooking classes at the Institute with the talented Florence Lin I probably cooked more than 300 Chinese dishes and tasted another 200 dishes on my travels through China. I still have the recipes with class notes and sometimes I just page through them to remember the fun of discovering marvelous classics or remembering that pig snout was not my favorite flavor. Then there were pigs’ ears, chicken feet and, of course, intestines as well as chicken brains and every part of every creature imaginable. It always amuses me when people say they want to have “authentic” Chinese food as I wonder if they really mean all the parts that are used in traditional Chinese cooking.

But, one of my favorite dishes actually came from a Chinese restaurant in New York City that has since closed, the House of Tu. It became so popular so quickly that the owner was lured away to Texas where he was set up in his own restaurant there. The dish is pearl balls.

They looked appealing on the menu and even more interesting when they arrived. Here were delicious pork meatballs coated in sticky rice and steamed for two wonderful bites of flavor. Dipped in a Hunan pepper sauce, the mellow ball took on a spicy accent. When I asked Florence about making them in class she came up with a recipe the following week and they have been a favorite in my household ever since. They are easy to make and freeze and reheat well so I usually make two or three recipes at a time and have them on hand for easy meals or appetizers. Unfortunately, I have only seen them on one menu in the Twin Cities. But we did feature them in “Asian Flavors” along with a photo in a bamboo steamer basket. Here is the recipe:

Pearl Balls
From “Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesotans since 1875”
By Florence Lin, adapted by ACAI

1 cup glutinous (sweet) rice
1 pound lean pork, ground (or ground beef plus 1 tablespoon vegetable oil)
1 egg
1 tablespoon cornstarch combined with 1 tablespoon water and 1 tablespoon white wine
1 teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon Chinese light soy sauce
4 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and minced (or canned water chestnuts)
1 tablespoon minced scallion, white part only
vegetable oil
Hunan Pepper Sauce or other Chinese hot sauce

1.     Rinse the rice several times and cover with cold water to soak for at least 1 hour. Drain well and spread rice on a clean cloth or paper towels to dry for at least 1 hour.
2.     In a large bowl, combine the pork, egg, and cornstarch mixture, mixing well. Add the salt, sugar and soy sauce and stir in one direction with a chopstick until the meat holds together. The texture will change from ground pieces to little strings of meat all pointed in one direction. Add water chestnuts and scallions and continue to stir. Cover and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
3.     Set up a wok with racks for steaming. Fill the wok about 1/3 full of water and bring to a boil.
4.     Lightly oil the inside base of each rack. Moisten your hands with water and scoop up about 1½ tablespoons of the pork mixture, rolling it into a ball about 1 inch in diameter. Roll each pork ball in the dried rice  to completely cover the meat. Set the balls on the steamer rack about ½ inch apart. When the rack is filled place it over the boiling water, cover and steam over medium high heat for 20 minutes. (If you are using bamboo steamer racks, steam two racks at a time.) Remove the balls to a platter or individual plates. Repeat with the remaining meat and rice. Serve hot with pepper sauce.

Note:  Pearl balls freeze well and may be reheated. Place the cooked and cooled balls on an oiled cookie sheet and freeze until firm. Store the frozen pearl balls in freezer bags up to 6 weeks. Defrost at room temperature and steam to reheat approximately 8 minutes until heated through.


Read more about Asian food in Minnesota and try more than 160 recipes in Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875, now in bookstores and on 

Buy online:  Asian Flavors: Changing the Tastes of Minnesota since 1875 

Watch the EMMY® award winning “Asian Flavors” television show based on the book on tpt MN. Check local TV listings for broadcast times or view the show streaming online at: