Niku dango are Japanese meatballs, and are the perfect accompaniment to beer and noodles (two of my favorite things). Meatballs, in general are huge right now – Bon Appetit magazine recently had a whole issue devoted to them. Shit, 20% of all my (granted, now craptastic) blog traffic consistently comes from people Googling Swedish meatball recipes. I love meatballs, and since I’ve been fiddling with Asian flavors again these days – mostly Japanese and Korean – I thought I’d make some pork meatballs with a Japanese twist.
Flipping through my cookbooks, I saw a recipe for such “meatballs with a twist” in the Japanese Country Cookbook, and this is very loosely based on that (I prefer fresh shiitake to dried, soaked ones). Mix a pound of ground pork with a beaten egg, a small handful of panko, 2 minced shiitake mushrooms, a clove of minced garlic, a couple tablespoons minced shallot and grated ginger, a small splash each of soy sauce, mirin and sake, a tablespoon or so of sugar and a pinch of salt. I also added a pinch of chile flake for posterity. Some minced scallion would’ve been a nice touch, had I had any around, and I guess some finely chopped hijiki or nori flakes would’ve been kinda special. Oh well.
I know people will say there are better ways, and I know that grilling would yield the best flavor, but I just portioned these puppies out using a small ice cream scoop and baked them at like 375 or 400 for about 20 minutes. This is just always the easiest way for me to make meatballs, even if frying in butter or duck fat does taste better. The mushroom and all the seasoning liquids (plus the lovely pork fat) keep the interior of the niku dango so nice and moist that you can get away with a higher temp to get a crispier exterior, but I brushed mine with store-bought tonkatsu sauce (pineapple flavor, though you could use a mix of soy sauce, honey and rice vinegar) and returned them to the oven to get all sticky and glaze-y.
Since I cooked these to sate a trashy izakaya jones, I originally served them with udon soup and gyoza, but I had so many leftover that I enjoyed the rest for a fast lunch the next day (reheated in the toaster oven) with shoyu ramen, soft-boiled egg and sprinkled with shichimi togarashi (Japanese chile powder) and nori goma furikake (seaweed-sesame rice seasoning).