Chinese Pork Balls and Cabbage is a hearty dish suitable for a cool autumn weeknight. If you’re after an authentic Chinese main dish keep looking. This recipe is adapted from Myra Waldo’s Chinese Cookbook, first published in 1968, and reflects Americanized Chinese sensibilities adapted to the tastes and ingredient availability of the 1960s. Like most recipes from this book, the “Chinese” flavor profile comes from a mixture of soy sauce, sherry, and ginger, supplemented with green onions and canned Chinese vegetables. It is warm and comforting and everything a good meal should be, but it’s just not what twenty-first century Americans would consider traditional Chinese cuisine.
I usually try to avoid recipes with canned water chestnuts. The texture toes an uncomfortable line between crunchy and flaccid and the canning liquid always smells musty and off. There’s probably also part of me that’s “too good” to use canned Chinese vegetables now that fresh ingredients are so widely available. I thought about leaving them out but figured this recipe might be different, with finely chopped water chestnuts drained and rolled into meatballs. The experience of opening the can was every bit as unpleasant as I expected, but they gave the pork balls some much-needed texture.
Preparation is straightforward. Ground pork is mixed with chopped vegetables and seasoning with an egg as binder. The pork is formed into large balls, rolled in cornflour, and pan fried in a quarter-inch of oil. Once the meatballs are browned, finely shredded cabbage is quickly fried in the remaining oil. The pork balls are added back to the pan, covered in a light soy-and-sherry broth, and simmered until the meatballs are cooked through and the cabbage is soft. As written, the cabbage practically dissolves into the broth. It adds flavor but also some body to an otherwise thin soy broth, and helps it to cling to the rice. I considered “improving” the recipe by stir-frying the cabbage separately right before serving. I still may do this in the future, but I appreciate the dish “as-is”.
Chinese Pork Balls and Cabbage is warm, simple, and satisfying but needs more than just a side of rice to make a decent meal. Ms. Waldo recommends serving this “Chinese style”, as one of many small main dishes and appetizers. I will heartily second this recommendation if you’re entertaining, but this seem impractical for everyday cooking situations. Our family found that a simple ring of canned pineapple was enough to balance it out for a weeknight meal. Enjoy!
- 2 lbs ground pork
- ½ cup green onions (thinly sliced)
- 1 8 oz can water chestnuts (coarsely chopped)
- 1 tsp ground ginger
- 2 eggs
- 6 tbsp soy sauce (divided)
- ½ cup apple cider vinegar (or dry sherry, divided)
- ½ cup vegetable oil
- 2 small heads Napa cabbage (shredded)
- 1½ cups water
- 6 cups cooked long grain rice
- To make the meatballs mix together pork, onions, water chestnuts, ginger, and eggs. Add two tbsp each of the soy sauce and vinegar and mix well with your hands to form a smooth mixture. Form into 12 large meatballs and set aside.
- In a deep cast iron skillet or enameled Dutch oven heat oil over medium-high heat. Roll the meatballs in cornstarch and fry in the oil, turning to brown all sides, about 5-8 minutes total. Work in batches as needed.
- When all meatballs are cooked, reduce the heat to medium and add the cabbage. Stir fry for a minute or two.
- Carefully add the remaining soy sauce, vinegar, and water to the mixture and stir well. Add the meatballs back to the skillet. Cover and simmer 20 minutes until meatballs are cooked through and cabbage is almost entirely dissolved into the broth. Serve with rice in a large bowl, ladeling the broth over top