These are no ordinary meatballs. Glazed in a zingy sauce made from Thai sweet chili sauce and lemongrass, the intermingling of Asian flavors is lively and intense.I appreciate the expert way the Vietnamese use lemongrass to season meats and seafood. Since leaving Viêtnam a decade ago, I’ve missed tasting those dishes on a regular basis. Sweet and spicy flavors dominate southern Vietnamese cuisine, which has quite a bit of overlap with Thai cooking.
Pork gives these meatballs excellent flavor and texture. And ground pork is especially good when seasoned and broiled until sizzling and golden. Both for everyday cooking and special occasions like Têt (the Vietnamese lunar New Year), pork is the meat of choice in Viêtnam. The recipe that inspired this one–Thai Sticky Meatballs–used ground chicken. Though almost any ground meat can be used, I find pork easier to shape and the results more reminiscent of dishes I enjoyed in Asia.
Even without the sweet and spicy sauce, these meatballs are packed with lemongrass, ginger, and garlicky flavors. The bold accent of ginger marries the tangy, aromatic, and sweet elements in the best way. Two of my children, however, liked them best without the sauce. I, on the other hand, am a sauce fiend and could not resist a second serving of tangy meatballs, with extra sauce to liven up my steamed white Jasmine rice.
The amazing sweet and sour sauce is made on the stovetop, but you can transfer it to a slow cooker and place the meatballs in the warm sauce about 20 minutes prior to serving time. These sweet and sour meatballs would be a great option to serve with Jap Chae Noodles or Pumpkin Fried Rice with Ginger. Prepare them anytime you want to imagine yourself across the ocean, taking in the sunshine and the intense, authentic flavors of Southeast Asia.
Viet-Thai Sweet and Sour Meatballs
- 1.5 pounds ground pork (or ground beef or turkey)
- 2/3 cup gluten free rice cereal crumbs (such as rice Chex)
- 1 egg, lightly beaten
- 2 medium shallots, coarsely chopped
- 1 long stalk of fresh lemongrass, diced
- 1 inch fresh ginger bulb, peeled and cubed
- 5 cloves fresh garlic, peeled and chopped
- 2 Tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 to 2 Tablespoons cooking oil
- 1 cup Thai sweet chili sauce (such as Mae Ploy)
- 1/3 cup tamari sauce (or soy sauce if gluten is okay)
- 1 Tablespoon (or more to taste) light brown sugar
- 1/4 cup rice vinegar
- 1/4 cup water
- 2 to 4 Tablespoons carrot puree, optional
- 2 teaspoons fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup fresh cilantro leaves, chopped
- 1/4 cup green onion (scallion), chopped, divided
- Use a mortar and pestle or a small food processor* to mash or blend together shallots, lemongrass, garlic, ginger and fish sauce until a blended paste forms (though it does not have to be smooth).
- Heat oil in a large skillet or wok over medium heat. Add about half of the paste to the warm skillet. Reserve the other paste portion for the meatballs. Heat the aromatic paste for several minutes until the fragrance is released, stirring frequently. Add soy sauce, chili sauce, brown sugar, and rice vinegar, stirring well to blend the flavors.
- Stir in water and bring sauce to a gentle simmer. Stir occasionally, and continue to simmer until sauce thickens slightly.
- Meanwhile, in a large bowl, add the ground meat, reserved seasoning paste, cereal crumbs, and egg. Use a potato masher and/or your hand to blend the ingredients throughly with the meat. Blend in about 3 Tablespoons of the green onion and additional fish sauce if desired (I used 1 teaspoon).
- Preheat broiler with an oven rack at a position about 8 inches (20 cm) from the heat source. With wet hands, form small balls (about 2 cm in diameter) with the meat mixture and place them in on a foil-lined baking tray.
- Broil meatballs for about 5 minutes on each side, turning once, until lightly browned and slightly crispy on the outside and cooked through on the inside. Transfer cooked meatballs with some of the juices to simmering sauce and simmer together for 10 to 20 minutes. In the last minutes before serving, add the fresh lime juice and remaining green onions. Taste sauce and if desired, add carrot puree to taste (to temper the intense flavor). Transfer meatballs to serving dish or slow cooker and top with fresh cilantro. Serve warm with steamed rice or cooked noodles.
Recipe adapted from Serious Eats
*Note: My food processor was too large to blend the paste very effectively, so I used my Oster blender fitted with a small Mason jar to pulverize and blend the shallot and ginger mixture into a paste (pictured below).