Meatballs take the center stage on March 9th for… National Meatball Day!
While the first thing that might come to mind when you think of meatballs is a big ol’ plate of spaghetti and meatballs smothered in marinara sauce (yum!), the meatball didn’t originate in Italy. Spaghetti and meatballs might not even be a traditional Italian dish.
So, who invented the meatball?
Historical evidence traces the meatball’s origin to Persia, located in southwestern Asia, roughly where the country of Iran is today.
The Persians had a dish called kofta, and recipes can be found in the earliest known Arabic cookbooks. The original dish was made from ground lamb, rolled into orange-sized balls, and glazed with egg yolk and saffron before cooking.
Today you can find about as many varieties of kofta as there are of meatballs.
The meatball is defined as a small ball of ground meat mixed with spices, egg, and breadcrumbs or rice. That leaves a lot of room to experiment!
There’s no one way to cook and serve meatballs either. They can be baked, pan-fried, steamed, roasted on a stick, or dropped into sauce or broth to simmer.
Plus, the type of meat used in different cultures depends on what’s available, or what’s traditional.
The Chinese have a popular dish, pronounced shi zi tou, which means “lion’s head.” Made from finely ground pork, water chestnuts, and spices, these meatballs are served on shredded cabbage.
The ingredients give the meatball a “shaggy” appearance, which is how they got the name. Shi zi tou have been around for a long time, too. The recipes can be traced back to the Qin dynasty, from around 221-206 BC!
Albondigas are found in Spanish cultures. In Spain they’re made with a mix of veal and pork and served as tapas–which is like an appetizer or a snack. In Mexico, albondigas can be found in soups or cooked in a spicy adobo chili sauce.
Another popular, and famous, type of meatball is the Köttbullar from Sweden. Swedish meatballs are often made with beef mixed with finely diced, or grated onion, and breadcrumbs that have been soaked in milk.
Köttbullar are served up over noodles with a tasty gravy, and you can add an authentic Swiss accent to this dish with lingonberries. They’re tart, like cranberries, and naturally grow in the northern hemisphere.
There’s also a recipe from England, dating back to about 1381, called pome-dorries, using either ground beef and egg or pork liver and flour.
Another variation of an English meatball is called Scotch eggs. A boiled egg is peeled and wrapped in a ground meat mixture, coated in breadcrumbs, then baked or pan fried for a hearty meal.
In Italy, the meatball is called a polpette. It’s a tiny version, often about the size of a marble. A collection of recipes found from the Roman Empire and dating back to the 4th or 5th century included lots of meatball recipes made with things like cuttlefish, chicken, rabbit, and even peacock!
While they have quite a history in Italy, you won’t find Italian meatballs served with spaghetti. They’re served as a main course with pasta as a side dish.
With meatballs in every place around the planet, where did the dish of spaghetti and meatballs come from?
Italian Meatballs in America
It’s an affordable, homemade recipe that let people make use of every bit of meat that they had on hand, providing a filling and inexpensive meal that could feed a family. That’s the reason spaghetti and meatballs became so popular.
Most Italian immigrants in America, around the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, were quite poor. They found ways of importing the flavors of southern Italy, where many of the families had previously called home.
The recipe began with inexpensive cuts of meat, ground up and mixed with breadcrumbs and spices to stretch the meal. Canned tomatoes were plentiful and could be made into a “Naples-style” marinara sauce. And, to make it go a little further, they served it with spaghetti noodles. Buon appetito!
However, there is some evidence that a type of meatball and noodle recipe was in Italy as early as the 16th century. The reference comes from a play featuring a character called Pulcinella. (Masks that resemble his face are very popular in Venice around the time of Carnival, or Mardi Gras.)
In the play, Pulcinella speaks of dreaming about eating maccheroni and meatballs. And then waking up and being upset to find it was just a dream!
Why a day of celebration for the meatball?
Meatballs are everywhere. Movies have been made about meatballs. Cartoon characters and pets are named “Meatball.” Every culture around the globe has a version of the meatball.
That’s a perfect reason to celebrate!
The first mention of National Meatball Day was on March 9, 2010. It was on a website that listed news and events for the local Kansas City, Missouri area.
The idea caught on in other places. In 2011, more cities began to join in the party.
By 2012, it had grown to a national day honoring the yummy orbs of ground meat.
There are so many ways to enjoy meatballs, from snacks and appetizers to soups and main dishes, and meatballs are so easy to make!
Here are a few meatball recipes you can find at eat2explore:
Share your meatball-making adventure on our Facebook eat2explore Dinner Club group!