A Delicious History of the Marvelous Multicultural Meatball

Mama mia, it’s National Meatball Day! Finally, a whole day dedicated to Italy’s favorite dish, smothered in red sauce and served atop swirls of spaghetti.

Wait…what’s that you say? Spaghetti and meatballs aren’t really a thing in Italy? And meatballs probably originated in…the Middle East? Wow. Okay. Obviously we have a lot to learn about our beloved meatballs.

On this very special day of meatball love, we’re going back in time and across the globe to say grazie mille to all the multicultural contributions to the meatball tradition. From soups to sauces, Sweden to Spain, Lunar New Year to Lady and the Tramp — there’s more than one way to enjoy a meatball! Like the dish itself, meatballs are a little bit of everything, and we’re all the better for it:

Middle Eastern kofta

Let’s start at the beginning. As with any food, it’s impossible to say who made meatballs first, but Persian kofta has a strong shot at the prize. Kofta means “pounded meat” in Farsi, and based on early Arabic cookbooks, food historians believe they originated back in the Persian empire and then spread along trade routes. Often made with beef or lamb, kofta provided the perfect way to utilize scraps of leftover meat, turning the morsels into a brand new meal. Today, their rich history continues across the region with local specialties like Turkish koftë and Israeli ktzitzot.

M-Zuma_kofte-kebabAre you getting hungry? Try our Kofte Kabob Plate and travel back to ancient times.

Chinese wan zi

Another early contender in meatball history, Chinese wan zi is a specialty of Shandong cuisine from the country’s northern coast dating back to 200 B.C. Like many traditional Chinese recipes, these “Four Joy” meatballs are considered a lucky and symbolic food, making them a favorite of Lunar New Year celebrations. Chinese meatballs are usually made from a mixture of pork and vegetables like water chestnuts and cabbage, then rolled into a hefty ball — so hefty that they’re often called Lion’s Head Meatballs!

Italian polpettes

The first known Italian meatball recipes appeared in Apicius, the oldest surviving recipe book from the Roman empire, which was published sometime between the 1st and 5th centuries A.D. That sounds pretty old, but the Persian empire (6th century B.C.) and Chinese Qin dynasty (3rd century B.C.) still had a solid head start!

Unlike the portly meatballs we make in the States, authentic Italian polpettes are smaller and bite-sized — usually no bigger than a golf ball, and sometimes as small as marbles. And while American-style meatballs are enjoyed swimming in sauce, polpettes are commonly served unadorned or in a simple soup. The unassuming polpette is peasant food at its finest.

06_17_2016_EatClub-072-Edit-FINALAdd some pop to your lunch with EAT Club's Turkey Polpette, inspired by the Romans.

Italian-American meatballs

As it turns out, the dish we think of as quintessentially Italian is actually Italian-American. As Italian immigrant communities grew across the East Coast, they did what they could to recreate homeland staples with ingredients they could find stateside — namely, canned tomatoes and spaghetti — and stretched their small budgets by rounding out low-grade scraps of meat with stale bread and herbs. When those cheap meatballs left a little to be desired, a generous coating of classic tomato sauce did the trick.

But as the communities found work and fortunes improved, the meatball grew in size. Households could afford more meat, and a larger, denser meatball became a staple of Sunday dinners. Italian-American restaurateurs started serving these meatier meatballs on their menus, and to appeal to American diners who expected a starchy side with supper, the spaghetti and meatball combination was born.

Today, spaghetti and meatballs are nothing short of an icon — even if you won’t find them at any authentic establishments in Italy! From unforgettable Alka Seltzer commercials to a romantic doggy date in Lady and the Tramp, this surprisingly American dish is a surefire crowd-pleaser across cultures and generations.

06_17_2016_EatClub-054-Edit-FINALAlmost like Nonna's, our Spaghetti and Meatballs add big flavor to lunch.

Swedish köttbullar

It’s the highlight of any trip to IKEA: a little plate of tasty Swedish meatballs topped with sauce and served with tart lingonberry jam. Legend has it that meatballs were introduced to the country in the 18th century after the Swedish king was exiled in the Ottoman Empire and returned with the recipe. The Swedes made their meatballs with beef, pork, or veal, and added their own spin: peppery brown gravy and a tart jam. Fellow Scandinavians knew a good thing when they tasted it, and the meatball spread across the region to countries like Norway, Finland, and Denmark.

Spanish albondigas

Spicy albondigas are likely a souvenir from the era when Spain was under Muslim rule between the 8th and 15th centuries. The name is even derived from an Arabic word — al-bunduq — meaning hazelnut, a nod to the meatball’s color and small size. Today, the albondiga can be found across the globe in Spanish-speaking countries, including Mexico, Colombia, and Puerto Rico, either in a broth-based soup or as part of a tapas spread.