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April 12, 2010

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Many ways to make a meal of meatballs

THEY have been around for ages and can be found across numerous cultures, but they have earned their English name only in recent times and in the United States.

As food historians can tell, the term "meatball" is fairly new, most likely created in melting pot America to refer to the classic Italian-American version so often tucked into gooey submarine sandwiches, slathered in red sauce and spooned over noodles, or bobbing in soup.

"I can tell you that the idea is a lot older than the word," says food historian Anne Mendelson. "Before about the early 1920s, you would have had a hard time finding 'meatballs' in an American cookbook, and the first entries were 'Swedish meatballs.' It took another 20-some years for 'spaghetti and meatballs' to start showing up regularly in cookbooks."

Balls of meat are at least as old as written recipes, however, with references to the idea dating back to Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes regarded as the first cookbook, says Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in California.

"The real obsession comes in the Middle Ages," he says. "They had an obsession with pounding meat," which he says was a way to make tough and less desirable cuts of meat more palatable.

The world of meatballs is broad and ill-defined. The only thing they have in common is that the meat sticks together.

Here is a primer to 10 from around the globe:

Polpette: Roughly translated from Italian into something pounded, this meatball is native to southern Italy. Typically made with a mix of ground meat, spices, lemon zest and bread crumbs. Ancestor to the American meatball, minus the sauce and spaghetti.

Kibbeh: Native to the Middle East, the mix of this fried or baked torpedo-shaped meatball varies by country, but typically consists of a bulgur and meat shell with a stuffing of ground lamb, beef or chicken.

Albondigas: Spanish for meatball, these bite-sized balls are native to Spain, but show up in many Latin cultures where spices, sauces and meats differ from its cousin the polpette.

Lion's head: The Chinese have hundreds of meatball variations. Loosely resembling a lion's head, this large Shanghai meatball comes in white and red (with soy sauce) and usually contains pork, shrimp and cornstarch. Typically stewed with vegetables that include cabbage, which is supposed to represent the lion's mane.

Kotbulle: A 1960s party classic, the Swedish meatball is made with beef, cream and soaked white bread. Smaller and denser than other varieties, it's usually roasted or fried, then served as an appetizer or over noodles.

Klopse: Named for the former German city of Konigsberg (now Russian Kaliningrad), this German meatball is made of ground beef, veal, pork, onions, bread crumbs and eggs, then poached and served with a white cream sauce.

Frikadeller: Similar to the Swedish version, this Danish meatball starts round but is flattened a bit when pan-fried.

Kofta: The generic name used for meatballs from India to the Middle East and North Africa. Typically spicy and containing eggs, nuts and cheese. There are seafood or vegetarian versions.

Keftedes: Greek meatballs usually containing lamb, parsley, thyme,mustard seeds.

Faggot: It means a bundle of sticks, but if you ask for faggots in England you will get baked rounds of pork, offal, bread crumbs, spices and onions.


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