The Mighty Meatball: Bringing Back Flavor
Do you want a flavorful meatball? Something that will wow your guests? Then think of adding cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and garlic. Think that is new? It isn’t – in fact it is returning to the origins of the “Swedish” meatball.
Todays Meatball is a bit Boring
When I went away to the states for college, the meatballs in the continental US were boring. Many are just combinations of beef and pork, and often the meat is overcooked leaving the meatball dry, although that is often hidden in the sauce (tomato sauce if you are making spaghetti, or a gravy sauce for others). One recipe had frozen meatballs from the grocery store placed into a crock pot with a vat of grape jelly (it wasn’t bad, it was ghastly).
Most meatballs are like having only the meat from a burger without the crunch and sour of the pickle, the sweetness of the tomato, and that touch of bitter from the onion. I didn’t understand why my grandmother’s and mom’s meatballs were so delicious and these were so dull. Over time I had received recipes from different people who made meatballs and they were all versions of the same until history showed me the ingredients I was missing.
In Search of The Mighty Meatball
While there may have been other reasons to visit Turkey, Norway, Italy, and Sweden – there was always project meatball. Finding a meatball that tasted like my mom’s. I can’t ask mom about this, her dementia won’t let me crack that code, so I had to travel the world to find the secret to unlock the flavors in her meatballs.
The Swedish Meatball’s Origins in Turkey
If you go to Stockholm consider taking a “food tour.” Not only will you learn about the history and culture of the country, but you will eat well. Then, if looking for recommendations they know the city and its food like no other. In this case, I wanted a meatball. The traditional meatball as served in Stockholm.
But when talking to the food historians in Sweden, the meatball did not originate in Sweden. The meatball was brought to Sweden by King Charles XII in 1714. He was forced into exile in the Ottoman Empire (now Turkey) after losing a war to Russia in 1709. For five years he was a guest of the sultan, and besides trying to get the Ottoman Empire to go to war against Russia, he enjoyed the Ottoman cuisine. After five years the sultan became tired of Charles scheming and tossed Charles out of Turkey. Charles returned to Sweden with two cuisine items: the meatball and coffee.
The Meatball in the Ottoman Empire
Istanbul is the the western world’s second cosmopolitan city. This was the last city of the Roman empire, until the Sultans conquered it in 1453 which began the Ottoman Empire. But today I was walking in The Spice Market. This market has been in business since 1664. You can imagine when Charles XII came here and his nose was filled with aromas that came from around the world. Aromas he never smelled before. Food he had never eaten before. When I was there the smell of the spices were so abundant and so fresh that my nose is overjoyed. Just outside the spice market, as everywhere, are people who will sell you lamb that is cooked simply over fire and to that lamb is added lemon zest, salt, zaatar, as well as nutmeg.
There was something comforting about the smell in the spice market, I didn’t realize that my brain was remembering food aromas from home.
Putting ground meat with spices isn’t an original idea. In Roman times the cookbook author Apicius (25BC – 37AD) describes meats from chicken to fish being ground with spices added. Almost every culture has a variation of a meatball (ground meats roasted with some spices).
For the Ottoman empire, the meats they used were lamb and poultry. No pork (they were Muslim and pork was forbidden). The flavor came from the variety of spices that were available to the Ottomans. The Ottomans, it turned out, had all of the known spices of the Western World. The spices from Asia and Indochina were traded to Europe through the Silk Road that began in modern day Xiian and ended in Istanbul.
Isn’t ironic, I am looking for a meatball made from lamb, and the best lamb I had was at the start of the Silk Road. Simply cooked, much like in Istanbul, over some flames with some great spices.
The Silk Road started in modern day Xian and ended in Constantinople. These were spices they would use daily and likely ones Charles XII had never tasted before. Spices also made the Ottomans wealthy: turmeric, pepper, nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, as well as herbs such as ginger. The addition of these spices to the meatball made the cuisine delicious.
The Swedish Version
Until the mid 1800’s meatballs were mostly consumed by the wealthy in Sweden. Charles didn’t have meatballs as a meal but would eat them as a snack with coffee (coffee being the other Turkish product he introduced to Sweden). Meatballs were first mentioned in Cajsa Warg’s 1754 Swedish cookbook. She described meatballs as chopped meat (calf, sheep, or ox) with grated bread and eggs. The seasonings were pepper, salt, and nutmeg. Nutmeg, for a time, was worth more per weight than gold.
By the 1850 the meatball became common food for the Swedes. Much like fashion trends are set by the famous today, the meatball was the fashionable food and became a beloved dish of Sweden.
The Meatball Coming to America
When the economy collapsed in Sweden, many migrated to the United States. Over 1.5 million Swedes immigrated to America in the mid 1800’s bringing their love of meatballs. It is in America that the first pork was introduced into the meatball. Pork was the primary protein of early America, and while Swedes had cultivated pigs since the stone ages, pigs were often too valuable to be used for daily fair. There is no record of pork being used in a meatball before the Swedes came to the United States.
What the immigrants didn’t have were many spices. In the 1850’s there were few spices available in America. To season meat there was salt, and to flavor was pepper, and probably Allspice. Ironic that America was discovered in an effort to find a new route to get spices (trying to break the Ottoman’s hold on the spice trade). The only spice native to North America is Allspice (first noted by Christopher Columbus on Jamaica). Allspice is from the dried berry of an evergreen tree but I’d describe its flavor as a mix of cloves, cinnamon, and nutmeg.
When Italians migrated to the United States they would often write home about how inexpensive meat was. Their relatives would write back in disbelief, because in traditional Mediterranean cuisine there is little meat, unless you are wealthy. In Italy people would spend up to 75% of their income on food, and in the US their relatives would spend only 20% or less, and have meat.
Going to Rome you want the flavors of Italy. But Italy has been influenced so by the many cultures that have brought ingredients. All roads lead to Rome, and from Rome comes our first cookbook, restaurants, traditions. Rome took these and made them their own. Tomatoes came from the new world, and yet are such a part of Italian cooking. But one thing you won’t find is a dish called “spaghetti and meatballs.” In fact, you would be hard pressed to find a meatball in Rome.
Italian-American meatballs are primarily beef and pork, with only garlic, salt, and pepper to add flavors.
Norway is one of the friendliest countries on the planet. Going to the little town of Otness to have great food from my relatives meant I had a chance to try meatballs. I admit to getting lost in the cold poached salmon, the Norwegian variety of goat cheese, and cucumber salad. But I did find some meatballs and tried them. They were ok, but they were not what my mom had fed us.
Back in America, go to any Son’s of Norway Lodge and during holidays they will have a smorgasbord with meatballs. But now I was curious, did mom have the secret of meatballs from their recipe books? Somehow Amazon had a copy of the recipe book put out by the Midnatsol Lodge in Ketchikan (1969). I won’t tell you what I paid for this, but suffice to say I would have paid double. When it arrived I opened to find the meatball section and their meatballs have Allspice in them. I made the recipe, it was better than most, a hint of flavor that made the bland meatball palatable, but still not “wow.”
Then I asked my aunt, who had my grandmother’s cookbook. The recipe my grandmother used came from a Son’s of Norway cookbook from Minnesota that was printed in 1940 and it had ginger, nutmeg (from the old country) and allspice. This was the recipe I remember as a child.
Coming Home Through Food
They say you travel the world to find paradise in your backyard. In this case I had gone to four countries in Europe to find the meats and spices used to make the meatball that was in my grandmother’s cookbook.
But we have to add a twist – we have more of the spices available, so here is my version of the meatball. Made, tested, and even wife approved.
The Ottoman-Swedish-Norwegian Meatball Revisited
Preheat an oven to 325 degrees
1/2 lb ground lamb
1/3 lb ground pork
1/3 lb ground veal (or you could use hamburger)
It is always best to get the whole spice and grind it rather than getting pre-ground spices. They are far more aromatic. But if you don’t use spices that often (yet) pre-ground will provide you with more flavor than you have experienced in your cooking.
1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp of ground Allspice
1 tsp of ground cardamon
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1 tsp Kosher (Diamond) salt
2 inches of ginger – minced
Parsley leaves – chopped to make 2 Tablespoons (about a handful of leaves)
More Added Flavors
The zest from one lemon
1/2 medium red (purple) onion – minced
3 cloves of garlic – minced
The Peaky Binders
1/2 cup of dry bread crumbs (best to make these. Tear a loaf of sourdough bread and place on a sheet pan in an oven at 325 F for 20 minutes). Once they are done then grind some in a food processor and keep the rest sealed in a ziplock bag.
1 large egg — beat it, just beat it. It doesn’t matter who is wrong or right
1/2 cup of water
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and went to medical school. Dr. Simpson, a weight loss surgeon is an advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he believes teaching people to improve their health through their food and in their kitchen. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcolm Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska and in 2013 Dr Simpson won the National Indian Health Board Area Impact Award. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.