It has been about 20 years since I made Chinese steamed pearl balls (you may giggle at the name, but it is the literal translation of the Chinese characters: 珍 珠 球, zhēnzhū qiú) and I had forgotten how deliciously easy these Asian dumplings are. Zhēnzhū qiú hail from Shanghai and are sometimes served as a first course at banquets in Beijing, according to Chinese food expert Eileen Yin-fei Low. But I like to eat them along with Cantonese dim sum favorites. Pearl balls seem to fit in well, and Cantonese dim sum these days includes preparations from many parts of China. When my husband tried the pearl balls, he deemed them the perfect substitute for the typical Swedish meatballs served as cocktail fare. In fact, he was sipping on rose while enjoying zhēnzhū qiú, dipped in soy sauce and chile garlic sauce.
For these Asian dumplings, a fragrant pork mixture is shaped into meatballs, then coated in soaked sticky rice (a.k.a. glutinous/sweet rice) and then steamed. The pork mixture for pearl balls is purposefully made to be very soft to ensure succulence. It’s sticky and to make them easier to work with, I freeze the meatballs to firm them up before coating them in the rice. During cooking, a translucent skin forms as the sticky rice grains expand and cohere. They also absorb the richness and flavor of the pork. As for the pearly resemblance, the entire cooked dumpling glistens with a certain pinkish cast like a giant pearl, and you could say that the rice grains resemble tiny seed pearls. You can’t eat pearls but you can certainly enjoy many of steamed pearl balls.
Chinese cooks traditionally use long-grain sticky rice for steamed pearl balls but I prefer short-grain sticky rice as it stays softer longer once out of the heat. Look for sticky rice at Asian markets and some specialty grocers. The grains are opaque, not translucent like regular long-grain rice.
How to say steamed pearl balls in Mandarin: download Zhēnzhū Qiú pronunciation
Chinese Steamed Pearl Balls
Present steamed pearl balls with a quick stir-fried green vegetable or a salad for a nice lunch. Ground chicken thigh or turkey can be substituted for the pork. In Cantonese, this dumpling is called jun jiu kao.
Makes about 24 balls, serving 6 to 8 as a snack
¾ cup sticky (sweet) rice, short-grain or long-grain variety
½ teaspoon plus generous ¼ teaspoon salt
3/4 pound ground pork, fattier kind preferred
11/2 teaspoons minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoons finely diced water chestnut, jicama, or carrot
2 scallions (white and green parts), minced
1 pinch of white pepper
1 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine or dry sherry
1 teaspoon light (regular) soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 tablespoon canola or peanut oil
1 large egg
Light (regular) soy sauce
Chile Garlic Sauce, store bought or homemade (recipe is on the Viet World Kitchen site)
1. Put the rice in a bowl and add water to cover by 1 inch. Let stand for at least 2 hours (or even overnight) at room temperature.
2. Drain the rice in a mesh strainer, shaking the strainer to expel excess water. Let aside to dry while you prepare the pork mixture. Drier grains adhere to the meat mixture better.
3. Combine the pork, ginger, water chestnut, and scallion in a bowl. Stir and mash with a fork to combine well.
4. In a small bowl, stir together the generous 1/2 teaspoon salt, white pepper, sugar, cornstarch, rice wine, soy sauce, sesame oil, and canola oil. Add the egg and beat to combine well. Pour over the meat mixture and stir vigorously to create soft, sticky mass. There should be about 13/4 cups.
5. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Use two teaspoons to scoop up a generous tablespoon of the pork, then pass the pork back and forth between the spoons to form a neat ball about 1 inch in diameter. Deposit it on the prepared baking sheet before repeating. You should have about 24 balls total. Freeze the baking sheet for 10 minutes to firm up the meatballs.
6. Meanwhile, line steamer trays with parchment paper and set aside. Get the water boiling for steaming and lower the heat to keep it hot and ready.
7. For good measure, shake the strainer again to rid excess water. If the rice glistens with moisture, blot it with paper towels. Transfer to a bowl and toss with the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of salt. Put about 1/3 of the rice on a plate.
8. Use your hands to pick up one of the balls of pork, roll it between your hands to smooth any rough edges, then roll it in the rice. Aim to coat the surface with a single layer of rice. Place on the prepared steamer tray. Repeat with the remaining balls, spacing them about 1/2 inch apart. Overflow balls can be put on parchment paper lined baking sheets.
9. Steam the dumplings over boiling water for about 20 minutes, until the rice is translucent and the pork is done. Detach the trays and place each on a platter. As the pearl balls cool, they take on a pink cast from the pork below the rice.
Serve immediately with soy sauce and hot chile garlic sauce. Refrigerate leftover dumplings, return them to room temperature, and steam them for about 5 minutes to reheat.