I’m going to try to be a functioning adult and not crack a million dorky jokes about how much I love balls. This is a grownup blog for grownup people. However, can we all just admit that balls are delightful? Like food on a stick and sandwiches cut into triangles, balls just taste better than non-balls. There, I said it. Now let’s talk about Vietnamese meatballs.
We’ve made various kinds of meatballs over the years, some are main dishes like our Red Curry Chicken Meatballs, and Swedish (ish) Meatballs with Cream Gravy. Some are party snacks like Sweet and Spicy Korean Cocktail Meatballs, and Japanese-style Chicken (or Turkey) Meatballs (Tsukune). Though these Vietnamese-style meatballs would be great for a party, we like them best on top of a bed of steamed rice with loads of lightly pickled vegetables and fresh herbs alongside.
Vietnamese cooking is all about balance. As Underbelly chef Gary Ly says in this article in Saveur, “It’s a culinary reflection of the Buddhist-inspired five-element philosophy, which pairs a natural element with a flavor: wood to sour, fire to bitter, earth to sweet, metal to spicy, water to salty. Every dish must demonstrate harmony between the elements, and their corresponding flavors.”
Start with the Pickled Carrot and Daikon Radish (Dồ Chua)
You don’t have to make these Banh Mi-style pickles for this rice bowl but we definitely recommend it. There’s just something about that sweet and salty mix of crisp carrot and earthy daikon radish. It’s as delicious in a rice bowl as it is on a sandwich. The easiest and fastest way to prep the vegetables is to use a julienne peeler, though you could also use a mandoline or a sharp knife. The important thing is that the vegetables are cut evenly, and thin enough to soften quickly.
Our version is slightly less sweet than some, so feel free to adjust the ratio to your taste. Add the carrots, daikon radish, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Using your fingertips, massage the salt and sugar into the vegetables until the sugar is fully dissolved and the vegetables soften slightly. Add the cold water and rice vinegar and stir it all together. The pickles can be used immediately, or even better, add them and the brine to a glass jar, seal it and refrigerate it for up to 1 week.
When choosing a fish sauce, look for one that has only 2 ingredients, anchovies and sea salt. Our favorite these days is Red Boat.
Check out our Asian Pantry Basics page for more information about these and other ingredients.
Make the vietnamese meatballs
Heat oven to 375ºF and set a rack in the middle slot. Line a rimmed baking tray with parchment or foil. Start by adding the pork or turkey to a medium bowl. Add in 1 tablespoon of cold water, the minced cilantro and scallions, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, salt, black pepper and the lime zest. Use a silicone spatula or your hands to mix everything together. Keep stirring vigorously until the mix turns soft and sticky, about 20 to 30 seconds. Unlike Italian meatballs or meatloaf, where mixing gently is the key to keeping everything tender, here we’re looking for a springier texture that comes from slightly emulsifying the protein strands. So don’t be gentle!
Lightly moisten your hands with water, and roll the mixture into 1 1/2 tablespoon-sized balls and place them on the prepared baking sheet. I like to use a portion scoop to keep everything even but you could also just eye it. You should end up with around 24 meatballs. Cover the tray with plastic wrap and refrigerate them for at least 15 minutes, though they can be chilled for up to 24 hours.
Once the balls are chilled, remove the tray from the refrigerator and drizzle the meatballs very lightly with vegetable oil (or a quick spritz with a cooking spray). Pop them in the oven and bake until the meatballs are lightly golden and cooked through, about 15 minutes. If they’re fully cooked but you want them darker, you could pop them under the broiler for a minute or two.
Make the Quick Dressing
While the Vietnamese meatballs are baking, make the dressing. In a small bowl, stir together the fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and the sambal oelek until the sugar is dissolved.
To assemble the bowls, add some rice to each, then top with a few meatballs, and some of the pickled carrots and daikon. If you want, add some thinly sliced cucumber and radishes to the bowls. Top with a few cilantro sprigs and some chopped peanuts. Drizzle over a little dressing and serve the bowls with the extra dressing on the side and some extra lime, for squeezing.
Rice Bowls with Baked Vietnamese-style Meatballs
For the Meatballs:
- 1 pound ground pork or dark meat turkey
- 1/4 cup finely chopped cilantro leaves and tender stems, plus more for garnish
- 3 scallions white and green parts, minced
- 3 large garlic cloves grated or minced
- 2 tablespoons fish sauce
- 1 tablespoon palm or light brown sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest from 1 lime
- 1/2 tablespoon neutral oil (or use cooking spray)
For the dressing:
- 1/4 cup fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons palm sugar or light brown sugar
- 3 tablespoons lime juice plus more for squeezing
- 1 to 2 teaspoons sambal oelek or chili garlic sauce or more, to taste
For the Bowl:
- 2 to 3 cups cooked rice or other grain of your choice
- 2/3 cup thinly sliced Persian or English cucumber optional
- 1/4 cup thinly sliced radishes optional
- 1/2 cup roasted peanuts chopped
- Heat oven to 375ºF and set a rack in the middle slot. Line a rimmed baking tray with parchment.
- In a medium bowl, add the pork, 1 tablespoon cold water, cilantro, scallions, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, salt, black pepper and lime zest. Mix with a rubber spatula or your hands until thoroughly combined, then keep vigorously stirring until the mixture turns soft and sticky, about 30 seconds. Using lightly moistened hands, roll the mixture into 1 1/2 tablespoon-sized balls, placing them on the prepared baking sheet. (A portion scoop is helpful but you can also just eye it). You should end up with about 24 balls. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes, or up to a day.
- Remove from the refrigerator, drizzle the meatballs lightly with oil or give them a quick spritz with cooking spray, and bake until meatballs are lightly golden and cooked through, about 15 minutes. If you want them darker, place them under the broiler for a minute or two.
- Make the dressing while the meatballs are baking. In a small bowl, stir together the fish sauce, sugar, lime juice and sambal oelek.
- Assemble the bowls with rice, meatballs, carrot and daikon pickles and any extra vegetables. Top with a few cilantro sprigs and some chopped peanuts. Drizzle over a little dressing and serve with extra dressing on the side and a little lime, for squeezing.
Vietnamese Carrot and Daikon Radish Pickles (Dồ Chua)
- 2 medium carrots peeled, julienned or cut into thin match-like strips (about 2 cups)
- 1 medium daikon radish peeled and julienned or cut into thin match-like strips (about 2 cups)
- 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt
- 1 cup cold water
- 1/2 cup unseasoned rice wine vinegar
- Combine the carrots, radish, sugar, and salt in a large bowl. Using your fingertips, massage the salt and sugar into the vegetables until the sugar dissolves. Add the water and rice vinegar. The pickles can be used immediately, or even better, add them to a mason jar, seal it and refrigerate for up to 1 week.