The Meatball Story


Making homemade meat balls


As old as the meat mincer, meatballs are ubiquitous throughout the continent. They were known to the Romans and probably originated with the Etruscans. Apicius recorded a recipe for meatballs in pork caul that included minced meat, crustless bread, wine, ground pepper, garum, myrtle berries, pine nuts and whole peppercorns.

Replace the wine with milk, add butter or oil for the garum, egg instead of the caul for binding and you have a meatball similar to one made 2500 years ago.

Their popularity comes from the easy availability of ingredients and the simple method of production.

The meatball is generally made with minced meat, breadcrumbs, egg, herbs, onion and seasoning, then fried, baked or boiled, and often finished in a sauce or soup.

Regional differences, cultural influences and variable techniques characterise the meatball.

In Poland, Ukraine and Russia the influence is the bulette, a recipe brought to Berlin in 1700 with the Huguenots. Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and western Germany share the same basic recipe.

In the Balkans bulgur or rice alters the texture, which is the result of double mincing, a technique also favoured by the Turks.

The countries of the Mediterranean have a schizophrenic attitude to meatballs. They are either light and simple with nothing more than an egg and a tablespoon of cheese to bind the meat or heavy and complicated with numerous combinations of grains, herbs, legumes, spices and vegetables to enrich the meat.

The Turks boast nearly 300 varieties of köfte, including çiğ köfte (raw meatball), which combines bulgur, onions, water, paprika, mint, parsley and lemon with beef.

Meatballs are among the national dishes in Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.

Just don’t make the assumption that they should be ball-shaped. The Danish meatball, a combination of minced pork, flour, egg, onion and milk, resembles a burger.

500 g pork, minced
1 onion, chopped
1 egg
1 heaped tbsp of flour
Black pepper, ground
Vegetable oil
Butter, small piece

Combine mince, onions, egg, flour and seasoning. Mix thoroughly and add milk, little at a time. When the mixture makes a thack thack sound when you beat it, then it is the right consistency. It should be moist. Put in fridge for at least an hour.

Heat the oil in a pan and add butter. When the oil is warm, dip a big spoon (a tablespoon would suffice) in the mixture and form the frikadelles into an oval shape using the spoon and your hand. They should be more oval than round shaped.

After each frikadelle, dip the spoon in the hot oil so that the next frikadelle slips off the spoon into the pan.

Flatten the frikadeller slightly.

Fry gently until cooked though, about five minutes on each side. They should be still moist and spongy when served.

Danes serve frikadeller with potato salad and eat them cold on rye bread the next day.

Variations are more or less flour, and oatmeal or breadcrumbs.


The European Meatball

If there was such a dish as the European meatball, influenced by the diverse food cultures, it might be something like this.

1.75 kg beef and pork, minced
180 g Dijon mustard
175 g bread soaked in water
120 g Manchego, Parmigiano and Pecorino 
cheeses, grated 
40 g breadcrumbs
15 g 4-pepper
10 cloves garlic, crushed, chopped 
10 g Hungarian hot paprika
lemon zest (2 lemons)
5 sprigs marjoram, leaves chopped small
5 scallions, chopped small
5 sprigs thyme, leaves chopped small
7 g juniper berries, crushed
5 g salt
Sunflower oil, for frying

Combine the meat in a large bowl with the mustard and soaked bread, add seasonings and spices, berries and herbs, and zest.

Shape into small balls, half a finger in diameter.

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Spread breadcrumbs on a large plate, roll meatballs in crumbs, covering lightly.

Heat a thin film of oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat, gently brown meatballs a few at a time. Transfer to a baking tray.

Bake in oven for 20 minutes.


İçli Köfte


The Turks took these delightful Assyrian meatballs to their hearts (and stomachs) a very long time ago, and now produce numerous variations on the very old original recipe. In Istanbul the proliferation of Syrian restaurants has increased the competition to produce the best icli köfte.

Crust (dough)
500 ml  water, boiled 
350 g bulgur, fine ground 
150 g semolina, fine ground 
30 g /walnuts, fine ground
1 tsp cumin seeds 
1 tsp sweet paprika 1 tsp salt 
Semolina, coarse, for coating

Soak bulgar and semolina in the hot water, leave to rest for 30 minutes, then add the walnuts and seasonings. Wet hands and knead into a soft dough.

Core (filling)
250 g beef, double minced 
200 g onions, chopped 
100 g walnuts, coarse chopped / fine ground 
4 tbsp fresh mint, finely chopped (optional) 
4 tbsp parsley, finely chopped (optional) 
45 g red pepper paste / tomato paste (quantity optional)
30 ml /olive oil 
30 ml pomegranate molasses 
15 g  red pepper (paprika) flakes 
45 g red pepper paste / tomato paste (quantity optional) 
1 tsp sumac, ground

Sauté onions in oil, about 15 minutes. Add the meat, break and fry for three minutes. Add paprika, sumac and walnuts. Increase heat, stir for three minutes until the walnuts release their oil. Stir in the molasses and paste, leave to cool. If desired, work the herbs into the mixture. Divide dough into walnut-sized pieces, about 30 g each. Using thumb and forefinger make a cavity with thin sides in the bulgar dough. Place 10 g of filling inside the cavity, push down and fold dough over the filling, seal and shape into a ball. Deep fry in sunflower oil at 190°C until golden or shallow fry in a large frying pan or bake in a 200°C oven or boil in salted water. Note: The pastes can be bought in jars but they are easy to make if good fresh red peppers and tomatoes, preferably Turkish, are available.

For a colourful description on how to make red pepper paste go here.

Note: The crust for icli köfte is not always made with bulgar. Semolina became a crust ingredient along with nuts aeons ago. Wheat grits have also played a part while in more recent centuries potatoes have been combined with eggs and flour. Some recipes call for double-ground meat to be added to the various flours that define the crust. The bulgar can be coarse ground and also fine ground, the latter producing a crispy crust. The cooking method is also variable. According to Sahrap Soysal, author of A Cookery Tale, fried icli köfte are called irok, while the boiled version is known as igdebet.


Meatball Combinations

minced beef / lamb, breadcrumbs / bread, egg, 
feta cheese, flour, garlic, mint, milk, 
olive oil, onion, oregano, parsley, 
sunflower oil, seasonings

ALBANIA Qofte Elbasan
minced lamb, rice, onions, eggs, oregano, 
paprika, seasonings
BELGIUM Ballekes 
minced beef / pork, braised onion, 
white bread soaked in milk, 
egg, parsley, seasonings

CYPRUS Keftédes 
minced lamb / pork, potatoes, egg, 
onion, mint, parsley, vinegar, 
seasonings / cumin / oregano / garlic

DENMARK Köttbullar 
minced beef / pork / veal, onion, egg, flour, milk

FINLAND Lihapullat minced beef, sour cream, 
onion, flour, egg, mustard, paprika, seasonings
FRANCE Attignole minced pork, pork fat, 
white bread soaked in milk, eggs and flour, 
onion, pepper, shallot

FRANCE Attriaux 
minced pork, liver, garlic, onion
GEORGIA Abkhazura 
minced beef, pork, caul fat, vinegar, 
black pepper, garlic, onion, 
cayenne, coriander, fenugreek, 
salt, sumac
GERMANY Berliner Bulette 
minced beef and pork / veal, milk, egg, 
onion, bread soaked in milk / water, 
nutmeg, seasonings/bacon, caraway, 

GERMANY Gehacktesbällchen 
minced beef, onions, 
hard bread roll soaked in water, 
egg, seasonings
GREECE Keftédes 
minced beef / chicken / lamb / pork / veal, 
eggs, onions, bread soaked in water, flour, 
seasonings, parsley, mint / oregano, 
thyme / garlic

GREECE Soutzoukákia
beef, spiced tomato sauce
ITALY Etruscan pork caul with minced pork, 
crustless bread, wine, ground pepper, garum, 
myrtle berries, pine nuts, whole peppercorns

ITALY Polpette 
minced beef / veal, egg, cheese, breadcrumbs, 
seasonings / sausage/salami/herbs
minced beef / pork, bread roll soaked in water, 
onion, eggs, breadcrumbs, anchovies / mustard, 
seasonings / spices

NORWAY Kjøttkaker 
minced beef / chicken, egg, 
potato flour or starch, oats, onion, 
milk or water, ginger, nutmeg, seasonings
POLAND Breslauer Klopse
beef, white bread, onions, Polish mustard, egg, 
capers, anchovies, seasonings meatballs in sauce 
from beef / vegetable stock, potatoes, apples, 
pears, Polish mustard, anchovies, lemon juice, 
sugar and seasonings

POLAND Klopsiki w Sosie Pieczarkowym
minced beef / pork, etc with mushroom sauce

POLAND Klopsiki w Sosie Sery Pleśniowe
minced beef / pork, etc with blue cheese sauce

POLAND Pulpety 
minced beef / pork / veal / turkey, rice, semolina, onion, hard boiled egg, seasonings


ROMANI Perişoare 
double ground beef / lamb, rice, egg, onion, 
parsley, paprika, flour, seasonings/mashed beans

SPAIN Albóndigas 
minced pork, veal / beef, lamb, garlic, 
manchego cheese, scallions, thyme, seasonings

SWEDEN Köttbullar 
minced beef / pork / veal, onions, 
breadcrumbs soaked in milk, egg, parsley, 
pureed potato, seasonings
double ground beef / lamb, egg, onion, flour, 
red pepper paste, seasonings / bulgur, walnuts, 
paprika flakes, parsley




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