In the introduction to her book “Global Meatballs: Around the World in 100-Plus Boundary-Breaking Recipes,” Adeline Myers celebrates the imperfections that make these “humble, misshapen rounds” a home kitchen favorite. When it comes to assessing both flavor and aesthetics, Myers, 31, knows her stuff. The author, trained at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco, has baked desserts for many area restaurants, and also works as an art conservator, recently on assignment to restore a gilded picture frame for Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Myers set off to research the worldwide variations on one of the world’s great comfort foods after talking with friends. “I would ask, ‘Do you like meatballs?’ Everyone responded very positively. ‘Oh they’re so fun. Why don’t I eat more of them?’ They’re a very nostalgic food,” Myers says.
Q. What is consistent about all the meatballs you found?
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A. It’s a combination of minced, mashed, or finely chopped ingredients incorporated into a larger unit. Most often it’s a ball. But about half the time it’s a quenelle shape, more of an oval like a football. There’s always some sort of diced protein — meat, fish, or vegetable. Sometimes there’s a secondary ingredient like potatoes, stale bread, or yams to fill them out. Spices or herbs make them exciting and tasty. Most often there are eggs added as a binder, but not always.
Q. Did you discover that meatballs are really loved everywhere?
A. Over 40 countries are represented in the book, but everywhere that I looked there were meatballs. Mostly, it’s family food or street food. Sometimes it’s party food, but very rarely is it restaurant food. Your grandmother, your great-grandmother, her grandmother probably would’ve been making it the same way. That’s interesting to me. It’s like pieces of our culinary past that we bring along with us. And then most exciting are the places where you can see cultures coming together like in South Africa. You have South African native flavors with British tastes and Dutch techniques.
Q. Are meatballs always about doing more with less?
A. They are great for stretching a little bit of meat to feed a lot of people. You mix meat in with potatoes or a lot of bread and the meat can feed three or four times the amount of people. It’s not the steaks or the pork chops you’re using. It’s the funny little pieces that you grind so you can use it all. But there are places like India where you also get these really richly flavored, luscious, just over-the-top meatballs with nuts and berries and dried fruits. So, sometimes they’re a celebration of meat and bounty and other times they’re this economical food.
‘Everywhere that I looked there were meatballs. Mostly, it’s family food or street food. Sometimes it’s party food, but very rarely is it restaurant food.’
Q. What were some of your favorite discoveries?
A. The stews from West Africa really surprised me with the combination of peanuts with fish, or peanuts with meat. That’s not something we eat a lot here. The book has a meatball, yam, and peanut stew over couscous. There’s also a fish ball stew that incorporates peanut butter. They were delicious. There’s another called xim xim. It’s a Brazilian stew that incorporates chicken meatballs with pureed shrimp, cashews, peanuts, and red palm oil. There’s so much cilantro in there that it starts out this wildly green thing. But when you start adding the red palm oil, it turns into this neon red-orange stew by the end.
Q. You have recipes both for Italian meatballs and Little Italy meatballs. What’s the difference?
A. We all grew up eating spaghetti and meatballs thinking it’s Italian food. But that’s really an Italian-American thing. In America, meat was plentiful and inexpensive. Spaghetti and meatballs is something that happened in the last 100 years when there were a lot of Italian immigrants starting to come to America. If you go to Italy, you’ll see spaghetti and you’ll see meatballs, but you don’t put them on the same plate. It’s not even the same course. In Italy, meat was pretty scarce. The meatballs in Italy are tiny, like an inch or even less. They’re served with sauce but it’s a dish on its own. That’s mostly festival and party food, what you would serve during the holidays to your family to celebrate the bounty of life. But you wouldn’t eat those every day.
Q. After all your research, has your own taste in this popular dish changed?
A. I do love a plate of spaghetti and meatballs.
Interview was edited and condensed. Michael Floreak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.