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Taiwanese Deep-Fried Squid Balls Recipe

Why It Works

  • Pork fat and starch create squid balls that are bouncy and juicy.
  • Partially freezing the squid and pork fat before processing them to a paste produces a uniformly textured meatball with a tight structure. 
  • Double-frying the squid balls produces a more golden, crispier exterior.

One of the most prized textures in Taiwanese cuisine is an elusive concept known as Q—which is pronounced exactly the same way in Mandarin Chinese as it is in English. Q is an adjective which is often mistranslated as “al dente.” But Q doesn’t just mean al dente; Q describes a meatball you can forcefully bounce on a table and have it hit you right back in the head. It describes a food that is both elastic and chewy, like warm tapioca pearls soaked in brown sugar, or springy, alkaline noodles. It’s more reminiscent of a gummy bear than a perfectly cooked strand of spaghetti. 

And while there are many dishes that meet this abstract, sought-after criteria, few things embody it better than Taiwan’s wide and diverse range of meatballs. In fact, some meatballs are so Q, you can literally play table tennis with them. Some Taiwanese researchers have even designed elaborate bouncing tests to quantify the elasticity of different fish balls.

There’s nothing fancy to it. All around the world, meatballs were traditionally just a way to make use of scraps and leftovers. In Taiwan in particular, catches of unsold fish and miscellaneous shellfish are pulverized together with starch to form a batter, shaped into balls, and cooked in barely simmering water to form the foundation of a beautiful meal. “Back then we just had too much fish,” Huang Shao-Wei, the second-generation owner of a Taiwanese cuttlefish ball company called Hong Yu tells me. “We are an island, after all.”

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

Unlike Western meatballs, which are often made by loosely packing together clumps of meat, Taiwanese meatballs have a tight, elastic structure. The boiled renditions are usually served in a clear pork broth soup with cubes of daikon and garnished with a light sprinkling of celery leaves. Deep-fried meatballs, meanwhile, are eaten as on-the-go snacks with a dash of white pepper. 

Every company has their own recipe, but there are some general rules they observe. 

For one, all meatballs have to be infused with a heap of fat. Fat is essential to keeping the balls juicy. Second: For balls made out of seafood, a bit of starch is mandatory to help increase the mixture’s ability to retain water and give it improved structure, similar to how filling a balloon with additional water makes it feel tighter. Without the starch, the seafood ball will come out mushy and lack that essential Q. In Taiwan, the de facto starches are sweet potato and tapioca starch. I personally prefer the former because it produces a firmer texture, though the two are often used interchangeably or mixed together.

As with sausage-making, it’s extremely important to partially freeze whatever meat you’re working with. Cold temperatures help the fish proteins bond properly and prevent the fat from smearing (i.e., melting prematurely), which can produce a mealy texture. I have tried making meat and seafood balls with both room temperature and frozen meat and the results are clear. The former made a really depressing meatball that had more of a spongy texture; it literally fell flat. But the latter gave me a ball I happily bounced off of my kitchen wall.

This recipe for squid balls is one I developed based on interviews with two cuttlefish-ball specialists in Taiwan; here I use squid, which is an easy substitute for cuttlefish. It is, fundamentally, just squid blended together with starch and fat. Unlike pork sausages, which should be cohesive and moist but not too rubbery, these balls are prized for their elastic texture—which is achieved by first grinding the mollusk so finely that it’s slimy.

“You have to boil it in water to keep the ball’s shape, and then deep-fry it afterwards,” advises Hsu Kuang-Yang, the owner of Dahan Seafood Company, another cuttlefish ball company in Taiwan.

Serious Eats / Vicky Wasik

According to Huang, the mark of a great squid ball is one with a greater amount of squid than starch. “You can tell if it’s bad quality when it shrinks after you deep-fry it,” says Huang. “It means it has too much starch.” Huang also recommends folding in hand-minced chunks of squid at the very end to give it a bit of texture, and Hsu says to rest the pulverized meat for a couple hours to allow the starch to absorb more of the squid’s liquid. Both use dense pork fatback as their fat of choice, but because pork fatback can be difficult to procure for the average home cook, I’ve substituted it with pork belly, which I find works just as well even with its higher amount of muscle relative to fatback. 

After the squid balls are shaped and boiled in water, they are double-fried in a wok and come out a gorgeous light golden brown. While you can fry the squid balls in any large, deep vessel, a wok is one of the best choices for deep frying, since its wide, flared sides contain splatter and mess, and its thin, usually carbon-steel walls, are responsive to changes in heat, making it easier to regulate the frying temperature.

“Once fried, the squid balls should be a bit crunchy,” says Huang. I personally like stringing them on a long skewer and seasoning them with a heavy-hand of white pepper, night market–style, but you’re welcome to enjoy them however you like.

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