OK, maybe the meatball is not that elusive. However, contrary to popular thought, it is not only an Italian food. Many nations and many cultures have, throughout history, laid claim on the humble meatball (in actuality, a diminutive form of meatloaf). In so doing, the meatball has been varied to accommodate different tastes, available ingredients, and even religious traditions.
Where did the first meatball come from? No one knows for sure. However, we do have recipes for meatballs from the time of the Romans, as evidenced in an ancient recipe book written by Marcus Gavius Apicus (aka Apicius), who was born in 25 AD. His book is called “De re coquinaria libri decem (Cuisine in Ten Books)”. Book II is devoted to “minces”, or mixtures of meat and other ingredients. One meatball recipe goes as follows:
“Stuffed Meat Patties (Apicius 48)”
“Ground meat patties in omentum*: Grind chopped meat with the center of fine white bread that has been soaked in wine. Grind together pepper, garum, and pitted myrtle berries if desired. Form small patties, putting in pine nuts and pepper. Wrap in omentum and cook slowly in caroenum.
* omentum means pork caul fat
Incidentally, Apicius’ book also rates meats used for meatballs: “The ground meat patties of peacock have first place, if they are fried so that they remain tender. Those of pheasant have second place, those of rabbit third, those of chicken fourth, and those of suckling pig fifth (Apicius 54)” (excerpt from A Taste of Ancient Rome, by Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, translated by Anna Herklotz).
The meatball has also been found in other parts of the world. Acquiring the name kofta (possibly from the Persian word koffteh, meaning pounded meat), it is known in Asian, Middle Eastern and North African cooking as well. Here the kofta is found in rissoles, croquettes, and dumplings, where it is made of ground or mashed meat that is mixed with ingredients such as rice, burgul, or even vegetables. In India, the kofta can be made with fish, or even sans-meat, containing only vegetables. Here the kofta will have a spicy filling and contain nuts, cheeses, or egg. In Arabic kitchens, the kofta will consist of minced and seasoned lamb, which is rolled into orange-sized balls and then glazed with saffron and egg yolk.
During the dark time of the Spanish Inquisition, meatballs, or albondigas, were made with pork and other ground meats, then served to Jews who were secretly trying to pass as Christian converts. When the host announced the true contents of the non-Kosher meatballs, if any guests refused to eat those meatballs, or spit them out, they were immediately arrested and prosecuted (or worse).
Meatballs even made it into Sweden. The recipe for the k”ttbulle (Swedish for meatball), first made its appearance in a 1754 cookbook by Cajsa Warg. The k”ttbullar were served with a cream-based gravy and lingonberry preserves. Buttered noodles also became a popular side item, and nowadays are thought of as the expected accompaniment for Swedish meatballs.
Interestingly, the northern Scandinavian countries, as well as northern Sweden, would’ve considered meatballs a luxury item, since beef and other meats were (and still are) scarce in those regions. Furthermore, until the invention of the meat grinder, preparation of meatballs was too laborious of a process for common folk. Thus, Swedish meatballs were served mainly at festive occasions/holidays.
Eventually, Swedish meatballs were “imported” to America, along with the Swedish immigrants themselves. Many of those immigrants settled in America’s northern and Midwestern states, which helps explain the popularity of meatballs in America’s Great Midwest.
Italian immigrants also brought along their own meatball (polpette) recipes, many of which had evolved according to family tradition. The polpette were not initially served with spaghetti, but alone. Likewise, spaghetti was also served alone. The two forces came together in order to appease American clients, who frequented Italian restaurants and wanted meat served alongside their pasta dishes (from American Century Cookbook: The Most Popular Recipes of the 20th Century, by Jean Anderson).
Why would so many different countries take to making meatballs? The answers most likely stem from the nature of meat itself, as well as its initial scarcity:
1. By mixing meat with starches and vegetables, meat gained mass and became “more” than what it had originally started out as. As a result, more people could be fed on less meat.
2. Meat becomes tough after long storage periods. Mixing meat with vinegar, salts, and softer materials such as bread effectively tenderized it.
3. Making old and leftover scraps of meat into meatloaf was an economical and inventive way of conserving resources (no waste).
Some countries have found inventive ways for preparing/serving meatballs. In Afghanistan, meatballs are now grilled and placed on top of pizza. Japan makes a hamburger steak, called hanbâgu, that is basically a larger, flatter, meatball. Grecian meatballs are fried, and usually include finely diced onion and mint leaf within the meat. Indonesian meatballs are served in a bowl, with noodles, beancurd, eggs, and possibly fried meat to boot. In Albania, meatballs often come as a mixture of feta cheese and meat. Polish meatballs (golabki) are huge, about the size of large oranges, and include rice. They are served in steamed cabbage leaves, usually in a tomato sauce. In Spain and Mexico, meatballs are called ‘albóndigas. Spanish albóndigas can be served as an appetizer or main course, also in a tomato sauce. Mexican albóndigas are commonly served as a soup, including light broth and vegetables. Turkey boasts over 80 types of meatballs, each type made just a bit differently according to its region of origin. Finally, Italian meatballs, known as polpette, are consumed as the main course or part of a soup.