Some days are meant for sitting on the sofa and eating bon bons. While I admit bon bons are incredibly tasty (I had them just once and even made it a point to sit on the sofa while eating them), more often than not, I’ll make jun jiu kao when I’m in need of a comfort food fix.
Jun jiu kao, or pearl balls, are savory steamed pork meatballs coated with a layer of glutinous rice (rest assured, it’s gluten-free) that is chewy and satisfying. These tasty mouthfuls are also a nice dumpling-type alternative when I want a dumpling but don’t feel like rolling out wrappers. Jun jiu kao are easy to make, easy to make ahead, and easy to reheat. They are great eaten hot, warm, or at room temperature. They’re not too shabby straight out of the fridge, too! Pearl balls make a great snack but can also be served as part of a larger meal. They make for popular party finger food as well.
I make my pearl balls heavy on the ginger in humble homage to the gingery siu long bao (a.k.a. xiao lung bao/XLB/soup dumplings) I used to order weekly at Dragon Mark in San Gabriel, CA, before the restaurant changed hands. Dragon Mark (or One Dragon, as it was called in Chinese) and a few other XLB-renown restaurants were located in what must have been the XLB epicenter of the entire United States, a colorful, two-story strip mall of Chinese shops and restaurants on Valley Boulevard just east of my hometown of Alhambra, CA.
The Dragon Mark waitresses were awesome — very much like the relaxed and friendly “hey, honey” kind of waitresses associated with small-town diners, only they spoke primarily Mandarin Chinese. Before giving birth, I spent many nights eating tons of XLB and woah teep (a.k.a. guo tie/potstickers). These ginger-infused bites take me back to that place and time.
1 2/3 to 1 3/4 c glutinous rice (a.k.a. sweet rice) — FYI, it’s gluten-free
scant 1/2 t sea salt, finely ground
1 1/2 lb pork butt/shoulder, whole or ground, preferably twice
3 T ginger, finely minced
4 T jicama or water chestnut, peeled and minced
4 green onions, minced
2 pinches white pepper, finely ground
scant 1 t sea salt, finely ground
2 t sugar
2 t corn starch, arrowroot starch or tapioca starch
2 T sake
1 t gluten-free tamari
2 T extra virgin olive oil
For lining the steamer tray
Napa cabbage leaves or a mild-tasting oil (e.g. canola)
Put rice in bowl and cover with 1 inch of water. Set aside overnight at room temperature. If you live in a hot and humid place, store in refrigerator.
Drain rice well in a strainer. Spread on trays to dry further. (Drier rice grains stick better to the meatballs.)
If dealing with a whole pork butt/shoulder, using two Chinese chef’s knives or cleavers, chop vigorously until meat appears finely ground and is tender. If dealing with ground pork butt/shoulder, using one or two Chinese chef’s knives or cleavers, cut into ground meat over and over till meat is more finely ground and more tender.
In a large bowl, add meat and remaining filling ingredients. Mix by hand till mixture comes together and meat appears strand-like, almost fibrous. Do not simply stir the filling. Instead, using your hand, scoop up a handful of the filling and throw it back down into the bowl, then repeat with rest of filling many times over. (It’s similar to kneading dough.) This takes at least 20 minutes of constant mixing by hand; mixing longer doesn’t hurt.
Place mixed filling in a shallow casserole dish and put in freezer for 5 minutes, or enough time to firm (but not freeze) the filling.
Remove filling from freezer. Using the palms of your hands, roll meat into 3/4″ to 1 1/2″ diameter balls. Set aside.
Pat rice with paper towels to absorb excess moisture, mixing up the rice and blotting any new moisture you might find. Rice need not be bone dry, though the drier the better.
Pour rice into medium bowl. Add scant 1/2 t salt. Mix with hand to ensure salt is evenly distributed.
Put a bit of rice into a shallow, medium bowl. Roll a meatball in the rice till meatball is covered with rice. Your goal is to coat the meatball all around with a single layer of rice. Repeat with remaining meatballs, adding more rice as necessary. (Having too much rice at a time in bowl slows down this step.) Place coated meatballs on plates; do not overcrowd and do not stack.
Line steamer tray(s) with Napa cabbage leaves or lightly film tray(s) with oil. Add water to steamer basin, cover with lid, and boil to preheat the steamer. If the Napa leaves don’t lay flat at first, steam them during the preheating step as well to flatten.
Place coated meatballs on steamer tray(s), spacing them so they don’t touch. Depending on the size of steamer, you may have to cook the pearl balls in batches.
In a preheated steamer, steam on high for 20 minutes, or until rice is translucent and meat is completely cooked. Serve hot, warm, or at room temperature.
4 dozen meatballs
Glutinous rice is gluten-free. “Glutinous” does not mean “gluten.”
Attention, corn-allergic folks: The glutinous rice (see below for “Ingredient Sources”) I use contains corn starch as an ingredient, so this recipe is not corn-free.
When piping hot, the rice coating is very sticky, making the pearl balls difficult to remove from the steamer without them falling apart. Waiting till they cool off a bit causes the coating to go from sticky to tacky, making them much easier to lift out of intact with a spoon, chopsticks, or fingers.
Napa cabbage leaves lining the steamer tray impart a light, fresh, slightly sweet flavor to the meatballs. The Napa leaves can also be used repeatedly to steam multiple batches. If you don’t have Napa leaves, you can lightly oil the steamer with a mild tasting oil (e.g. canola). But keep in mind the oil will impart a bit of its own flavor to the pearl balls, and the steamer trays will require re-oiling in between batches.
Pearl balls can be cooked, refrigerated, and reheated by steaming for several minutes.
Ingredient Sources – What I Use
glutinous rice – Sho Chiku Bai (from Koda Farms)
corn starch – Kingsford, Argo, Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free
arrowroot starch – Bob’s Red Mill Gluten-Free
tapioca starch – Erawan, Pingo
sake – Takara Sho Chiku Bai Classic
gluten-free tamari – San-J Reduced Sodium Gluten-Free Tamari
extra virgin olive oil – Whole Foods 365, Costco Kirkland Signature
canola oil – Mazola, Spectrum