It is commonly acknowledged that serving dumplings is a sign of love. This goes for all dumplings: pierogi, ravioli, pot stickers, even tamales1. The reason they are so special is because of the labor involved in their production. That is why they are foods typically made for celebrations. Crafting individual morsels of food takes time and effort and, often, not a little skill.
But what if I were to tell you that there was a kind of dumpling that required little to no skill to make and could be whipped together in almost no time at all? There is! Here we’ll give you the knowledge, the temperatures, and the recipe you’ll need to make these delicious, fun Chinese dumplings sure to delight your friends and family. Get out your ChefAlarm® and Thermapen® and follow me.
What are Chinese pearl meatballs?
Pearl meatballs (called in Chinese zhen zhu rou wan) come from the Hunan province of China where they are eaten on festive occasions. They are very often associated with Chinese New Year and other happy times, but noted Chinese food specialist Fuchsia Dunlop, in her book Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province, has even described their consumption at a funeral feast.
But what are they? Pearl meatballs are meatballs (usually pork) that have been rolled in a coating of soaked, uncooked rice and then steamed. The rice around the meatballs cooks in place and expands, becoming translucent and pearlescent—from a distance, they could be mistaken for huge pearls. They are savory and tasty and absolutely fun to make and eat, and their unique appearance will cause quite a stir when you set them on the table.
Wait! Is this a dumpling then? Or is it a meatball? I contend that this counts as a dumpling. It is a seasoned meat that is technically surrounded by a starch that is eaten for special occasions. Just because the center is a meatball does not have to disqualify this food from dumplinghood.
What rice should I use for pearl meatballs?
Though it is common to use a short grained rice (usually sweet/glutinous rice) for this dish, you can really use any rice you want. Here, we used short grain sushi rice. If you use a longer grain rice, such as jasmine or basmati, your pearl balls will come out much spikier—porcupine style. So rice variety doesn’t matter much, as long as you soak it before you cook. Well, except maybe brown rice. Brown rice takes longer to cook, so it might not be done by the time your pork is ready to eat. But it’s not like you’re eating these for health reasons. Skip the brown rice.
Cooking pearl meatballs
Because these are made of ground pork, there’s no medium-raring them. No, these are cooked to the full 160°F (71°C) needed to eliminate food-borne pathogens. Using a leave-in probe thermometer like the ChefAlarm will allow us to monitor the internal temperature of the meatballs as they cook, eliminating the guesswork that could otherwise be involved. Checking the temperature with a Thermapen when your ChefAlarm’s high-temp alarm sounds is standard operating procedure to make sure you were getting a reading in the correct part of the meatball and that all the temps are up to snuff.
Of course, these meatball dumplings are steamed, so that creates a small problem for your probes which don’t love being in super steamy environments. But that is easily overcome by using the optional Pro-Series® Waterproof Needle Probe. Stick the thin needle probe into the center of one dumpling, put the lid on the steamer and let it go. The steam won’t bother the probe at all.
Starchy, meaty, tasty, fun, impressive…these morsels have it all going for them. You can whip them up in very little time and everyone will be wowed, even though they weren’t hard to make. But just because they’re easy to prepare doesn’t mean they aren’t also filled with love! Trust me, there’s plenty of love in these things.
Plus, because you temped them correctly, they’ll be both safe and more tender. What’s not to love about that?
Note on steamers:
If you have a multi-layer bamboo steamer, this is a great time to break it out! You can steam far more dumplings at once in one of those things. Try to insert the needle probe through the weave in the top layer.
Adapted from the recipe and method found on JustOneCookbook.
- 1 ½ cups short-grain rice (traditionally sweet rice/glutinous, but other rice is fine). Soak this in water for at least two hours, up to overnight.
- 1 lb ground pork (80/20 is best)
- 2 Tbsp green onion/scallion, chopped
- 1 large egg
- ¼ tsp kosher salt
- ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp fresh grated ginger
- 1 Tbsp soy sauce
- 1 tsp rice wine (optional)
- 6 water chestnuts, minced
- Sesame oil, for your hands
- 3–6 cabbage leaves for the steamer basket
- Combine the pork with all of the seasoning ingredients. Mix well so that the mixture starts to cling to itself somewhat.
- Drain the rice well and pour it out onto a plate or into a shallow dish.
- Pour a few drops of sesame oil into one palm and rub it on both your hands. Use a spoon to portion out balls the size of small walnuts, about 2 Tbsp.
- Roll the balls between your oiled palms.
- Roll each ball in the pre-soaked rice.
- Line the bottom of your steamer basket with cabbage leaves and get the water boiling in your steamer.
- Put one layer of meatballs in the steamer. Insert the Needle Probe into one of the balls.
- Set the high-temp alarm on your ChefAlarm for 160°F (71°C). Put the steamer basket into your steamer, place the lid on the steamer and steam.
- When the ChefAlarm sounds, verify the temperature with your Thermapen and remove the meatballs from the steamer. Check the water level in the steamer and cook the next batch. Repeat until they have all been cooked.
- You can serve them as they come out of the steamer or keep them warm in a covered dish until they are all ready.
- Serve with the dipping sauce of your choice. We used good soy sauce with a few drops of rice vinegar and chili oil, dressed with scallion.
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by any reasonable definition, a tamale qualifies as a large dumpling↩