Ba wan, a snack-food delicacy native to Taiwan, is generally translated to English as “meatball.” Sometimes it’s identified slightly more colorfully as “Taiwanese meatball.” And sure, it’s small and somewhat round, and it’s stuffed with meat. But its most salient feature isn’t meat, but rather a thick, gummy coating of steam-set starch that makes it impossible to see what’s inside.
Dumpling, you might say, is a more apt term for this treat. Ba wan have been eaten in Taiwan since the late Qing dynasty, which officially ruled the island until the land was ceded to Japan in 1895. Like many noodles eaten throughout Taiwan, the jelly-like, whitish wrapping on ba wan is made with rice flour—often combined with sweet-potato flour—and not wheat. Having a subtropical climate, Taiwan doesn’t grow wheat well. In fact, it wasn’t until the Republic of China made Taiwan its new home in 1949 that wheat-based noodles, buns, and dumplings became common. The lasting popularity of ba wan in Taiwan pays tribute to earlier, more traditional Taiwanese foods—it’s a source of pride, wrapped in goo.
In the small city of Beidou, in the centrally-located Changhua County where ba wan originated, they’re stuffed with chunky chopped pork and fresh bamboo shoots and mushrooms, and served drenched in a sweet and sticky sauce, often made with sweet chili sauce or ketchup and soy sauce, and thickened with starch. It’s an oozing mess on your plate—you’d never try eating it without chopsticks.
Ba wan range in style from region to region. If made in the classic Beidou tradition, they’re steamed until fully set and cooked through, then “poached” in hot oil to give the ba wan skin a sheen and translucence. In Taichung, they deep-fry ba wan to a more crispy effect. In Tainan, ba wan are usually just steamed, and then topped with a minced-meat sauce rather than the sweeter glazes found elsewhere. In Jiufen, a city featured in two of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s films, ba wan is often served with a sauce tinted bright pink. You can get a vegetarian ba wan, betraying its meatball moniker, filled with shiitake mushrooms, bamboo, and tofu. And in the summer, ba wan in Changhua County is served chilled, in a cold broth. Like many Taiwanese snack foods, a soup pairing is common and, with the exception of more regional discrepancies, the soup is usually si shen tang, a humble brew of medicinal herbs, yams, and pig intestines.
Despite the fervor for ba wan throughout Taiwan, it’s probably not the first food that visitors to the island seek out. That would be soup dumplings, or xiao long bao, which visitors often find at Taiwan’s only Michelin-starred restaurant, Din Tai Fung. Founded in Taipei in 1972 by a former cooking-oil salesman from mainland China, the restaurant now has branches in ten countries, including one in Hong Kong, where it has received a Michelin rating. But to Taiwanese, xiao long bao will always be “mainland food.”
The land in Taiwan is lush and fertile. Aboriginal tribes learned to take advantage of this with a diet that included wild boar, wild tubers, leafy greens, wild mushrooms, and bamboo shoots. Ba wan, with its small ratio of meat to filling starches and bamboo, is emblematic of a more hardscrabble tradition. It’s thought to have been invented during a flood in Beidou, rationed out to those displaced by the disaster.
Another difference between workman ba wan and fancy xiao long bao: the former doesn’t require a trained, skillful hand to create. You can make them without paying much heed to its final shape, and you can fill and flavor them however you like. I’ve provided a recipe that I lovingly refer to as Meatball Mochi in honor of the soft, stretchy dessert it resembles.
Photography from THE FOOD OF TAIWAN by Cathy Erway. Copyright © 2015 by Cathy Erway. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.