肉圓: Bawan Buddies
Taiwan's national meatball and the new cookbook from Clarissa Wei
Yesterday was pub day for Clarissa Wei’s new cookbook, Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation, written with culinary educator Ivy Chen. I’m an avid collector of Taiwanese cookbooks, old and new (Fu Pei Mei first edition, check. Wei-Chuan’s Tofu! Tofu! Tofu!, check). My collection has rapidly grown with recent releases from Win Son & Cathy Erway, Frankie Gaw, Bao London, and now this volume of Taiwanese recipes from Clarissa Wei—our peer, our friend, and an inspiration.
Today, I cook from Clarissa’s new book, which includes a recipe for one of my favorite foods ever: Bawan, or Crystal Meatball. It’s steaming in my Tatung as I write this; read on to see how it turns out and look for the full recipe in the text below.
We’re stocking copies of this book online and in our store; pick up a signed one while supplies last.
For very close readers of this newsletter (a handful of you), you may know that Yun Hai started as a personal cooking project called bawanbuddies, all the way back in 2017. I was pregnant with my first child, craving the taste of Taiwan (where I had just been on honeymoon, we wasted no time), and researching Taiwanese foods nonstop, looking for hard-to-find recipes like pickled mustard greens 酸菜 and, yes, bawan 肉圓. Let’s just say that I got distracted along the way and ended up a retailer, but my original intent was to cook everything the hard way.
Bawan is one of those classic foods that Taiwanese folks love to adore. It’s less a specific dish and more a format: a savory filling is enveloped in a mochi-like dough, steamed, and covered with sweet and tangy sauces of the goopy variety. People call it a meatball, but I think it’s a little more like a meat pie that uses root starches instead of wheat flour.
As a young person growing up in the States, I didn’t even know about bawan until… MY THIRTIES. It’s like being an adolescent and not knowing how to ride a bike. Growing up wearing Airwalks but never actually skating. Not knowing about BTS until your five year old tells you they are the most popular band in the world. All these things are true and more.
How had bawan evaded me my entire youth? I never saw it on restaurant menus. Or is it possible I encountered it on prior trips to Taiwan, but the whole dish was so obscured in sauce and translucency, I didn’t even perceive it? How many bawans had I missed?
I finally had one with my uncle, who brought me to a shop behind Zhongshan station in Taipei. He ordered too many and we brought them back to a friend’s apartment to eat. Fact about my uncle: he’s shockingly disciplined about his restrictive diet but adores food, so he gets his kicks by buying things for other people and hanging around while they eat it. A pretty enjoyable perk for me; he has impeccable taste.
“What’s the secret ingredient in the sauce?” my uncle asked. “Can you guess?” I guessed wrong so many times it started to get awkward. So I’ll make you wait too.
Made in Taiwan: Recipes and Stories from the Island Nation
When I returned from Taiwan, I found that English-language recipes for bawan were hard to come by. My go-to was one by YouTuber Taiwan Duck (who has since removed most of her videos, what a loss). In her demonstration, she used a bag of white tapioca pearls, soaking them in water and then crushing them to create the dough. When life give you pearls, make an even bigger pearl.
Enter Clarissa’s book, in which all manner of Taiwanese culinary topics are covered, including Bawan (called Crystal Meatball in the text).
According to Clarissa, Bawan was invented to feed the masses in a time of need, after a flood in Changhua in 1898. The ingredients (starch, water, pork) and equipment (bowl, hands, more water) are easy to come by. As with many simple Taiwanese street foods, it has serious economy of scale and a whole lot of flavor. This is also known as high CP value, as many have said in Taiwan (reference Clarissa’s book for more on that).
And I agree with what Clarissa writes: this is a food that represents the terroir of Taiwan, using ingredients that are readily grown or found on the island. Formosan wild boar is native to Taiwan (though that’s a small percentage of the pork that’s consumed); cassava and sweet potatoes grow easily in Taiwan’s climate and terrain; and rice is one of the major staple crops. Not all of these are native, but they do predate the popularization of wheat via US food aid in the 50s, another topic Clarissa covers.
A Tainan-style bawan recipe is included in Made in Taiwan. The dough starts with the raw materials: long-grain rice flour, sweet potato starch, and tapioca starch. The rice flour creates an opaque, heavy dough that’s typical of the southern style. The filling is prepared with well-seasoned pork and shallots only. To dress the finished dumpling, I prepared the recommended Sea Mountain Sauce (the one with the secret ingredient), Garlic Soy Dressing, and Garlic Puree—all recipes included in the book.
I always thought bawan never made it onto menus because it was so difficult to make, but in reality, it’s easy to prepare. Just embrace the idea of a sticky dough and all will be well and good.
Crystal Meatball, the Recipe
The bawan I was making have finished steaming by now (since I’m writing this 24 hours later), and look at how it turned out! Perfect.
In this preparation, the filling is disarmingly simple, and the assembly is most of the work. Like wrapping dumplings, it’s really fun to make in a group setting. If you have leftovers, slick them with oil and store them in the fridge. You can steam to reheat, or better yet, deep fry.
Clarissa and her publisher granted us special permission to share this recipe with our subscribers. Click the link below and read on for my tips.
First Tip: The Ground Pork
In my opinion, the trick with this filling (and any filling) is to grind your own meat. I know, I know. I’m always making it harder. But it’s true. When you grind your own, you can control the quality of the pork going into it, and adjust your own fat/lean ratios. And the grind’s exposure to air is much shorter, so it tastes fresher.
I do a 50/50 mix of marbled pork shoulder and tenderloin, and mince it with the meat grinder attachment on my Kitchenaid. If you have a grinder, make a big batch all at once and separate into half pound portions. Put them in the freezer for future dinners. In a pinch, or for a small amount, I also use my cleavers—see this method by Woks of Life.
Tip Two: Tangle it Up
Make sure you really mix that filling. A good meatball's got bounce and really holds together. That’s because it’s essentially been felted. All the fibers of the proteins and the fats have been whipped and tousled into one chaotic, connected, matted structure.
Stir it in one direction, for kind of a long time, and you will be rewarded. Using your own grind helps too, because the grain tends to be coarser and more open, increasing adherence.
Tip Three: Embrace Stickiness
The dough is going to seem intimidating because it’s very sticky, doesn’t really come together, and will want to stick to you more than itself. Water is your friend. Keep your hands and implements wet (not damp), and the starches won’t stick so much.
The general concept is to dissolve rice flour into water and cook it into a paste. Then fold the other starches into it when it’s cool enough to touch, but still warm.
As you fold the starches in, don’t add water no matter how much you want to. There is so much water in the dough, the starches will be absorbed. Knead and Believe.
Handling starch dough will annoy you because it’s so goopy. Just accept it. It’s much easier to rinse off than wheat-based doughs once you are all done.
Tip Four: Shaping the Dumplings
The dumplings are actually very forgiving to shape. Don’t worry about aesthetics too much. They’re going to get dressed, after all.
Use a paddle or a spatula or something kind of flat. It’s all about the pressure and the scrape.
Keep your implements wet. As soon as things get scary, just dip them in water. It doesn’t matter if they are caked in rice flour, dip them anyway.
If your filling kind of gets smeared around and a grain or two pops out on the top, don’t worry about it. They whole thing is going to get doused in sauce.
Tip Five: Steaming the Dumplings
The dumplings are molded in small sauce bowls. Be sure to oil these very well, which will make the dumplings easier to slide out after steaming. Oil the outside edge of the bowl, also. The dough may expand and a bit and will create a sticky seal if you don’t grease the overflow zone.
And, in case you’re curious, I steamed mine in a Tatung 6-cup with two cups of water in the outer pot.
Tip Six: Serving
Snip the top of the dumpling twice, in a cross pattern, to create an access point. If you watch videos of bawan street vendors on youtube, they really go at it, without much concern for symmetry. Mess is part of the gestalt, so do your thing.
Bawan are Bachanallian in nature: rotund, sloppy, with the insides spilling out, doused in sauces of all colors, served with an obscene amount of raw garlic, delicious. But top it with one or two fresh cilantro leaves and it all seems organized.
Don’t wear white while eating unless you really know what you’re doing.
It’s so messy that it’s often eaten with a fork, which I thought was just a flex when my uncle demonstrated. Then, I saw it pictured with a fork in Clarissa’s book. Just one of the many lights that has been turned on for me.
All in all, I give this recipe an A+. Easy to read, easy to follow, and turned out perfectly. The pork was very savory with a xiang 香 aroma and a strong kick from the white pepper. The wrapper was quivering and tender, held together just so, and the sauces that I made from the back of the book—Garlic Soy Dressing, Sea Mountain Sauce, and Garlic Puree—brought me back to that vendor stall in 2015.
Oh, and the secret ingredient? Ketchup. Used in the Sea Mountain sauce. This is confirmed in Clarissa’s recipe, also.
But I have a secret ingredient, too. One of my guesses when interrogated by my uncle was plum powder. Seemed like a good idea at the time, and I’ve been adding it to my sea mountain sauce ever since.
Don’t miss the Instagram giveaway we’re doing with Clarissa Wei and her publisher Simon & Schuster. Win one of three autographed copies and a bundle of Yun Hai products. Entries close on September 24th.
It’s my favorite time of year, the lead up to Mid-Autumn Festival. If you’re in NYC, save the date for a Mid-Autumn BBQ, Taiwan style, with Jessie YuChen at our brick-and-mortar store in Brooklyn on September 28th from 6-9 pm. Details will be shared on Instagram.
We also have Taiwanese mooncakes and pastries in store through the end of the month. Hit us up at the store for Li Ji mung bean and red bean cakes and an assortment of taro pastries by Tachia Master.
And, finally, we’ve got an exciting launch coming up later this month. It’s old, it’s dried, it’s …… tune in next week for the answer.
Bawan Buddies Forever,
Lisa Cheng Smith 鄭衍莉
Written with support from Amalissa Uytingco, Jasmine Huang, Luke Miller, and Lillian Lin. If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it with friends and subscribe if you haven’t already. I email once a month, sometimes more, sometimes less. For more Taiwanese food, head to yunhai.shop, follow us on instagram and twitter, or view the newsletter archives.