Last month I had the pleasure of contributing to Melissa Joulwan’s awesome meatball recipe collection, “March Meatball Madness.” My dish, Bakso, is one of my favorite ways to eat ground meat. Be sure to check out the rest of March Meatball Madness on her blog, The Clothes Make the Girl!
Bakso is an Indonesian beef ball similar to Chinese or Vietnamese beef balls. Like all Asian beef balls, they are dense yet spongy, with a texture similar to fishcake. The key component of this texture is pulverizing the meat into a paste, often described as surimi, wherein its proteins are broken down. I like this spongy texture, and it’s a great alternative to your typical uses for ground beef.
It’s commonly believed that Bakso was first brought to Indonesia by Chinese immigrants. Bakso vendors can be found on most busy Indonesian city streets. Recently, there has been a health stigma against Bakso vendors, since additives such as Borax and MSG are commonly found in the beef balls or broth they’re served in. But in their natural form – as found in this recipe – Bakso is both delicious and healthy. The only modification I made from typical Bakso recipes is that I omitted the bit of sugar that is usually added to the balls to enhance their flavor.
Bakso (Indonesian Beef Balls)
1 lb ground beef
1 lb ground pork or chicken
1/4 cup tapioca starch
1 tbsp fish sauce
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/2″ grated ginger or galangal (1/4 tsp ground ginger okay)
1/4 cup water
1 cup beef broth
1″ whole ginger or galangal, peeled
1 cinnamon stick
2 black cardamom pods
4 whole cloves
1/2 tbsp fish sauce
juice of 1/2 lime (~1/2 tbsp)
1/2 tsp white pepper
salt to taste (about 2 tsp)
1 lb Chinese cabbage (choy sum or kai lan preferred), washed and cut into 2″ lengths
2 carrots, julienned
chopped cilantro to garnish
1. Mix all of the beef ball ingredients together with your hands, then transfer to a food processor. Process the meat until bright pink, finely mixed, and somewhat tacky in texture. Stop the processor every minute and scrape down the sides with a spatula. Transfer the meat paste to a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and put in the fridge for at least four hours, or overnight if you’d like.
2. Bring a pot of water (~5 quarts) to boil, then reduce heat until it is gently simmering. Wet your hands, then grab some of the meat in one hand; squeeze the meat through your thumb and index finger, then scoop away the ball with a spoon and gently drop into the water (pictured below). Once the ball starts to float, let it simmer for 2 more minutes then fish it out and place it in a bowl of ice water. Check your first meatball or two to make sure they’re cooked through. Repeat this procedure with all of the meat; it’s easiest if you have someone making the balls while someone else monitors the balls for doneness and fishes them out. Once all of the balls are cooked and in the ice bath, strain and rinse them gently with cold water. At this point, your beef balls are done – enjoy them right away or freeze/refrigerate for later use. If you want to enjoy them immediately, proceed to step 3.
3. Spoon out any fat or chunks from the water you used to boil the beef balls – it’s going to be our soup base. Add the beef broth, ginger/galangal, cinnamon stick, black cardamom pods, and whole cloves. Bring to a boil and simmer for 30 minutes to allow the flavors to marry, then fish out the ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, and cloves (alternatively, you could put them in a tea bag or cheesecloth and pull it out). Add the fish sauce, lime juice, white pepper, and add salt to taste.
4. Add the Chinese cabbage and blanch for 30 seconds, then add them to the soup bowls. Do the same with the carrots, but blanch them for only 10 seconds. Add the beef balls to the soup and return to a simmer, then scoop the balls and broth into the individual bowls. Garnish with cilantro and serve.
** Feel free to experiment with the types of meat. Using half beef and half chicken/pork is my favorite, but you can use all beef, all pork, etc. Since Indonesia is a predominately Muslim country, Bakso is commonly made with just beef, or mixed with chicken.
** The accompaniments are just a suggestion – you could add all sorts of things, like rice noodles, zucchini noodles, sweet potato noodles, enoki mushrooms, scallions, fried shallots, or hard-boiled eggs. The possibilities are endless.
Gooey, tacky meat paste = springy, delicious beef balls.
The trick to getting smooth beef balls is to push them through your thumb and index finger, as demonstrated by the prettiest lady in my house.
Make large batches of beef balls so that you can freeze them for quick, weekday meals.