Hubei Pearl Meatballs
Happy Year of the Ox! In celebration of 春节 (chūn jié) Chinese New Year, I’m making another classic 湖北 Húběi dish from my childhood: 珍珠圆子 (zhēn zhū yuán zǐ) Hubei pearl meatballs. These are steamed meatballs covered in a thin layer of 糯米 (nuò mǐ) sticky rice. As the rice and meat steams together, the sticky rice takes on a translucent sheen that shimmers like a pearl!
Nothing beats the delicious foods of home to celebrate the holiday season with loved ones! For Chinese New Year, we eat round foods like these pearl meatballs to represent 团圆 (tuán yuán) togetherness and reunion. As such, in Hubei pearl meatballs are a popular food item for celebratory banquets. Whether you’re sharing your New Year’s table virtually or in person this year, thank you for allowing me to share the warmth of my home with you!
Legend has it that the wife of 陈友谅 Chén Yǒuliàng invented the dish during a military campaign in modern-day Hubei province. Chen Youliang would go on to become the founding emperor of the 陈汉 Chén Hàn dynasty in A.D. 1360. Pearl meatballs were also a popular food in the 清 Qīng dynasty court of 慈禧太后 Empress Dowager Cíxī.
But for a dish with nearly 700 years of esteemed history from imperial kitchens to state dinners, Hubei pearl meatballs are incredibly easy to make at home.
Cooking Technique: 蒸 Steaming
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In Hubei cooking, 蒸 (zhēng) steaming is one of the classic cooking techniques. Check out my 汽水肉 steam water meat custard for another famous Hubei steamed dish. Steaming allows the natural flavor of the ingredients to shine through, plus it preserves color and nutrients. When steaming these pearl meatballs, the sticky rice and meat cook together, infusing the rice with the delicate perfume of the meat filling.
When cooking for a big meal, we always use a multi-tier steamer pot like this one. I steamed two plates of Hubei pearl meatballs at the same time and still had space for another layer.
If you want to steam 饺子 (jiǎo zǐ) dumplings or 包子 bāozǐ buns, you’ll also want a large steamer. Bamboo steamers work, but they require a lot of maintenance to prevent mold. Nearly every Chinese family I know uses a stainless steel steamer pot like this one!
Ingredients for Hubei Pearl Meatballs
The center of these pearl meatballs is a classic Chinese meatball, so there is an egg for binder but no breadcrumbs! The classic recipe calls for hand-chopped 80/20 ground pork — here’s how to “hand chop” in a food processor. If you don’t eat pork, ground beef, ground chicken, or ground turkey would all work. Aim for somewhere between 15-20% fat content for moisture, as there’s no extra fat in the recipe. If you’re using a very lean ground meat, I recommend adding some neutral cooking oil for moisture.
The seasonings are simple to let the ingredients shine through: soy sauce, salt, white pepper, Shaoxing cooking wine, scallions, and ginger. For extra umami and moisture, we’ll add either chopped fresh mushrooms or rehydrated 香菇 (xiāng gū) dried shiitake mushrooms. If you’re using dried shiitake mushrooms, add a splash of the mushroom soaking water — it’ll amp up the flavor and give the meatballs a moisture boost.
As I previously discussed in my Shanghai wonton soup recipe, we’ll stir the meat vigorously for a couple minutes to activate the myosin. This helps the meatballs stay together while cooking, and gives the pearl meatballs a nice texture. Unlike dumpling and wonton filling, for meatballs there’s no need to go crazy. The meatball mixture just needs to be sticky enough that the meatballs hold their shape well.
The coating on the outside is 圆糯米 (yuán nuò mǐ) short grain glutinous rice (aka sticky rice or sweet rice or mochi rice). Glutinous rice is a special type of rice that is low in amylose starch and high in amylopectin, which makes it extra sticky when cooked. Note that glutinous here means sticky, not gluten as in wheat protein. It’s the key ingredient in 汤圆 tāngyuán (mochi ball soup) and 粽子 zòngzǐ (Chinese sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves).
Instructions for Pearl Meatballs
To help the glutinous rice cook more quickly, rinse it and then soak for 30 minutes so the grains soften slightly. Before we start forming the pearl meatballs, we’ll drain the glutinous rice.
Form 1 – 1.25″ round meatballs, and roll them in a thin coating of the drained glutinous rice. The grains of rice will plump up significantly when cooked, so it’s best to be a little stingy with this rolling stage. We want to maintain a tasty ratio of meatball filling to glutinous rice coating!
Video is worth 1000 words, so here’s a quick video to show you how it’s done:
Brush a shallow dish (like a ceramic pie plate) with oil, and then place the rice-coated meatballs on the plate. Make sure there is at least 0.5″ of space between the pearl meatballs so they don’t stick together. Steam for 35 minutes over a rolling boil. The meat should be cooked through, while the glutinous rice is soft and chewy. These are best eaten immediately out of the steamer. So if you’re preparing a banquet, pearl meatballs are a perfect appetizer.
Wine Pairing for Hubei Pearl Meatballs
Crème de Cassis: L’Heritier-Guyot, serve with crémant in kir royale (recipe below)
Cru Beaujolais: Chateau Thivin Brouilly Reverdon 2018, serve 12-14°C / 54-57°F
Chateau de Saint Cosme Cotes-du-Rhone 2019, serve 15-16°C / 59-61°F
If you’re serving pearl meatballs as an appetizer, try the classic apéritif options of crémant d’Alsace or kir royal. Crémants are dry sparkling wines made in the méthode traditionelle, a natural secondary fermentation in the bottle. Kir royal is a festive apéritif (pre-dinner drink) cocktail of 0.5 oz crème de cassis blackcurrant liqueur topped with 4.5 oz chilled dry sparkling wine.
If instead the pearl meatballs are part of a larger celebratory banquet, try a versatile, meal-friendly red wine. My top choices for a Chinese food banquet are cru Beaujolais — structured yet juicy gamay — or a versatile Rhône blend. Both are strong enough to stand up to the stronger flavors of Sichuan favorites like mapo tofu without overwhelming the delicate, clean flavor of these Hubei pearl meatballs.
Did you try this recipe?
These Hubei pearl meatballs 湖北珍珠圆子 are best enjoyed fresh out of the steamer with family and friends. Whether that means virtual or in-person celebration, I hope this bring some of the warmth of my home to you and yours for your next banquet.
Wishing you happiness, health, and prosperity for the new year!
Hubei Pearl Meatballs 湖北珍珠圆子
- Multi-tier steamer pot
- Shallow, heat-safe dish that fits in the steamer — e.g. a ceramic pie plate
- 1 cup
short-grained glutinous rice圆糯米，150克
- ½ tsp neutral cooking oil like canola or vegetable oil (for brushing the plate) / 菜油，适量（防止粘盘）
- 1 lb 80/20 ground pork or use ground beef, ground turkey, ground chicken with at 15-20% fat content (add neutral cooking oil if necessary) / 碎肉（8成瘦），500克
dried shiitake mushroomsrehydrated in warm water (reserve the soaking water) / 香菇，2颗（温水泡发）
- 1 large egg 鸡蛋，1颗
- 2 scallions chopped / 葱花，2根
- 1 Tbsp finely minced ginger root ~10g / 姜末，10克
- 2 tsp
Shaoxing cooking wine绍兴花雕就，10克
- 1½ tsp
light soy sauce生抽酱油，5克
- ½ tsp kosher salt 食用盐，适量
- ½ tsp ground
white pepper 白胡椒粉，适量
- 1 tsp
- Rinse the glutinous rice. Cover in at least 1" of water and soak for 30 minutes糯米洗净后侵泡30分钟
- Reserve 1/4 cup of the shiitake mushroom soaking water ("mushroom dashi"). Finely chop the rehydrated shiitake mushrooms泡发干香菇水的水留120克，将香菇切碎。
- Combine all the ingredients for the meatball filling and add the reserved mushroom water. Stir vigorously for 3-5 minutes until the filling becomes sticky.将所有的肉馅材料拌匀，朝一个方向搅拌至上劲（约3分钟）。
- Prepare a shallow cooking dish by brushing with a thin layer of neutral cooking oil to prevent sticking. Drain the soaked glutinous rice into a rimmed plate.在盘里刷少量的植物油。泡好的糯米沥干水分备用。
- Roll meatball filling into 1-1.25" balls. Lightly roll the formed meatball in the glutinous rice until it is coated in a thin, even layer. Place on the prepared cooking dish, leaving at least ½" of space in between.将肉馅揉成约2.5厘米的丸子，放入糯米滚动，使丸子均匀沾上一层糯米。
- Bring at least 3" of water in the steamer pot to a rolling boil. Steam for 30-35 minutes over medium-high heat (high enough for the water to remain at a rolling boil) until the meat filling is cooked through and the sticky rice is soft and chewy.蒸锅加入水，大火煮至沸腾。水开后大火蒸30-35分钟即出锅。
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