Emerging from the steamer like small hedgehogs or echidnas, these little showstoppers are an adaptation of a Chinese specialty often eaten at New Year celebrations.
More than one region lays claim to this style of meatball-meets-dumpling; they are especially popular in Shanghai, in the central Hubei province and its neighbouring mountainous Hunan region of southern China. Traditionally they are called zhenzhu qiu—a name that translates, more or less, as “pearl balls”.
Fuchsia Dunlop describes the pearl balls of Hunan (the birth province of Mao Zedong) in The Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook (Norton, 2006). Fellow Chinese cooking authority Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, author of Mastering the Art of Chinese Cooking (Chronicle Books, 2009), explains that pearl balls are “customarily eaten as the first course at a banquet” or sometimes as the main course at a family meal. “The pearls are grains of glutinous rice that become glossy and almost translucent when steamed.”
For this recipe, Tenina Holder has made the dish faster and easier by using regular white rice, which means forgoing the sticky character of glutinous rice but which needs only half an hour of soaking rather than the three hours which would otherwise be required. Short-grain rice, of the kind sold in supermarkets as “sushi rice”, is probably the closest quick-soaking equivalent but a longer-grain rice works just as well and helps deliver the quirky “echidna” effect.
If you like, you can make the pork mixture ahead of time and let the balls firm up a little in the fridge before rolling them in the rice. The dipping sauce is easily assembled from pantry items and given a lift with fresh lime.