Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Taiwanese Meat Balls (Ba Wan)

I love Ba Wan. Love, love, love!! One of those street foods that we rarely got to eat at home in Taipei because, well,  they were street foods, but which would also keep you up at night thinking about their delectably mouthwatering taste. The filling is basically a combination of pork, shiitake mushrooms, bamboo shoots, fried shallots, soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, and 5-spice powder, although there are slight variations, depending on who's making them. But, what makes these meatballs unique is the skin or wrapper, which is made from rice flour, sweet potato (yam) starch, cornstarch & water. Once steamed, it has a chewy-gelatinous texture which, besides tasting a heck of a lot better than it sounds, is a perfect foil to the uber-fragrant meat filling. I've only had steamed Ba Wan before, but there's apparently also a fried version (I understand that Hsinchu is famous for the steamed version, while Changhua is famous for the fried). 

Since mom has never made these before, I had to rely on my interpretation of the English translation of a Ba Wan recipe in one of my Taiwanese cookbooks. With instructions like "take a dish to paint oil on, and put skin paste on the dish, then add filling in, cover with paste," that in itself was a near-insurmountable task. But, I muddled through the ingredients and the steps and, after trial and error, came up with what I think is a a pretty decent version of Ba Wan.

I must say that the filling was a cinch, but the skin was the tricky part. Without clear recipe instructions, I tried to handle the gooey, floury mess while it was still hot and it was not a pretty picture. After steaming the Ba Wans, the skins still looked gooey, not delicately translucent like they should be. Then, when I tried to invert/remove the Ba Wans, the skins clung stubbornly onto the sides of the glass bowls they were in and wouldn't come out in one piece. Dammit! What a bummer...So, I took them out of the steamer and just left them on the counter while I regained my composure. Then, lo and behold, about 20 minutes later, my hungry hubby went over to help himself and said, hey - these guys are coming right out of their bowls. Hallelujah! Thanks to Gil's insatiable appetite, it all became clear - you need to let that gooey mixture for the skins cool down to a lukewarm temperature before handling and making the meatballs, and you also have to let the Ba Wans themselves cool a bit (10-20 minutes) after they come out of the steamer so that they'll unmold properly. All's well that ends well...The skins were still not as translucent as I like them to be, but maybe next time I'll increase the ratio of potato starchto rice flour.

This recipe makes about twelve 4" Ba Wans.

1 lb. ground pork (you can also use pork loin, thinly shredded)
8 shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in hot water, stemmed & coarsely chopped
3 tbsp. fried shallots
1 1/2 cups bamboo shoots, diced 
5 tbsp. soy sauce
1/4 tsp. white pepper
14 tsp. five-spice powder
1 tsp. sugar
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup water + 1 tsp. cornstarch

1 cup rice flour
7 cups water
1 1/3 cup sweet potato starch
1 1/3 cup cornstarch

Sauce (Hai Shian Jiang)*:
1 cup of the reserved rice flour-water mixture
4 tbsp. ketchup
3 tbsp. hoisin sauce
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. Sriracha chili sauce (or use your fav Asian chili sauce)

*Place all sauce ingredients into a saucepan, stir well with a whisk over medium heat. Bring to a boil. When thickened, turn off heat and remove to a bowl. Set aside until ready to use. 

1. Heat 2 tbsp. oil in a saute pan over medium high heat. Add fried shallots and cook for several seconds until fragrant. Add pork and cook until no longer pink. Add the chopped bamboo shoots and shiitakes and stir to combine. Add remaining ingredients and cook for about 1 minute until flavors are blended. Stir in cornstarch slurry (1/4 cup water+1 tsp. cornstarch), turn off heat and set aside. 

2. With a wire whisk, stir together 1 cup of rice flour and 7 cups of water in a large bowl until smooth and thoroughly combined (no lumps left). Pour into a medium stock pot over medium high heat; bring to a boil, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. When the mixture comes to a boil and thickens to a paste-like consistency, turn off heat, then remove pan from heat.

3. In a small bowl, stir together 1 1/3 cups of sweet potato starch and 1 1/3 cups of cornstarch. Mix well. Add to the hot rice flour mixture and stir with a wooden spoon and/or whisk until thoroughly combined. Try to get as many of the lumps out as you can, but the potato starch is naturally 'lumpy' so don't worry if it's not perfectly smooth. Let the mixture cool about 15-20  minutes before using. 

4. Using your fingers, oil twelve 4" bowls (I use glass or pyrex heatproof bowls) generously with vegetable oil (this keeps the skins from sticking).

5. Place 1 heaping spoon of the rice flour dough mixture on the bottom of each bowl and  spread thinly about 1/3 of the way up the bowl. Top with a generous 2 tbsp. of the meat filling, then top with more of the dough mixture to cover. The dough is pretty sticky, so just use a spoon and your fingers (dipped in a bit of water or oil) to spread it out evenly over the top. Make sure the dough is sealed properly around the top & bottom edges. It's ok if the top has more dough because when served, the meatball will actually be inverted onto a plate so that the thin bottom layer will end up being on top. 

6. Place Ba Wans in a steamer over high heat and steam 10-15 minutes. Remove from steamer and let cool 15-20 minutes (they will stick to the sides of the glass bowls if they're too hot). Once slightly cooled, invert the Ba Wans onto individual serving plates or bowls. Serve with Hai Shian sauce & freshly chopped cilantro.

I prefer using the vacuum-packed refrigerated bamboo shoots to the canned stuff. Night and day.

Some of the essentials: Sweet potato starch (here it's called potato powder), rice flour (always in the red bag), white pepper, five-spice powder, and fried shallots. 

Coarsely chop the rehydrated shiitake mushrooms.

The mise en place: diced bamboo shoots, diced shiitakes, chopped cilantro, soy sauce, sugar, five-spice powder, white pepper and fried shallots. 

Saute the fried shallots in 2 tbsp. oil over medium high heat for a few seconds. 

Add ground pork and cook until meat is no longer pink.

Add diced bamboo shoots & shiitake mushrooms.

Add chopped cilantro & remaining seasonings (soy sauce, five spice powder, white pepper, and sugar).

Add cornstarch slurry (1/4 cup of water & 1 tsp. cornstarch). Stir, then turn off heat & set aside.

Stir together 1 cup of rice flour with 7 cups of water until thoroughly combined. Remove 1 cup of the flour-water mixture to a separate bowl & set aside (this will be used for the sauce).

In a separate bowl, stir together sweet potato starch and cornstarch well. 

Pour the rice flour-water mixture into a medium stock pot. Bring to a boil over medium high heat, stirring constantly until mixture reaches a paste-like consistency. 

Stir sweet potato starch-cornstarch mixture into the gluey rice flour dough. Mix well. You may not be able to get it completely smooth, but that's ok. Let cool 15-20 minutes. 

Using your fingers, oil the bowls well with vegetable oil.

Place a heaping teaspoon of the slightly cooled dough onto the bottom of the bowl. Smooth it out evenly about 1/3 of the way up the sides.

Place about 2 tbsp. of filling over the dough. 

Place additional dough, teaspoon by teaspoon over the top and spread evenly using the spoon and your fingers (lightly wet or oil your fingers to keep the dough from sticking to them) until the filling is completely covered. Don't make this layer too thick, unless you like eating a lot of dough. 

Steam, covered, over high heat for 10-15 minutes. 

Remove from the steamer as soon as they are done. They'll come out looking still kinda sticky. If you let them rest for at least 15-20 minutes, they'll firm up and loosen up from the edges of the bowl, making them easier to invert onto a plate. 

For the sauce: Sriracha hot sauce, hoisin sauce & ketchup.

Mix all the sauce ingredients (hot sauce, hoisin, ketchup, sugar, and reserved rice flour-water mixture) together in a saucepan and cook over medium heat until thickened. 

Invert the Ba Wan onto a serving plate (you may have to run a knife around the edges to loosen it from the glass bowl) and serve with sauce and chopped fresh cilantro.


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  2. Hey TGF,

    Thanks for the recipe! Check out our post on the best meatball in Changhua (Changhua Meatballs) Taiwan!

    Happy Travels Everyone!