Asian meatballs with sweet and spicy tamarind sauce

Use these clever meatballs in spaghetti sauce for an everyday dinner, or tossed with a sweet and spicy tamarind sauce for a party appetizer. Your family or guests will never guess they're half tofu!

The Asian Grandmothers Cookbook
Make a double batch of these meatballs for a party appetizer, because they'll go fast!

I’ve been on a meatball kick lately, which is a little strange since I’m not a huge meat-eater. Maybe it’s the cooler weather. Maybe it’s all the spaghetti and meatball recipes I keep seeing. Who knows?

That being said, I didn’t want to make stodgy meatballs so I decided to lighten my meatballs up. I found suggestions for using extra fillers (breadcrumbs, oats, rice, beans, veggies, etc.) Then it came to me: why not add tofu just like the Japanese hamburger recipe in my cookbook?

After experimenting with ingredients and proportions, I first tossed the resulting meatballs into my favorite tomato sauce with spaghetti. My husband and son gobbled dinner up, none the wiser!

About a year ago, my friend Jill O’Oconnor interviewed me for an article she wrote for the San Diego Union Tribune about Asian ingredients. We had talked about various ways to use Asian ingredients in very American recipes she developed a recipe for Asian Turkey Meatballs with Honey-Tamarind-Chili BBQ Sauce.

Inspired by Jill, I decided to tweak her sauce and came up with my own sweet and spicy version.

Asian meatballs with sweet and spicy tamarind sauce
Makes 30 1-inch meatballs
Time: 45 minutes 

These half-tofu-half-pork meatballs are awesome as party appetizers. I’d make several batches because they will go fast. They’re that good. And your guests will never know they’re made with – gasp – tofu!

7 ounces firm or medium-firm tofu

1 pound 4 ounces ground pork, turkey, or beef (not super-lean please!)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 tablespoons chopped green onions (1 stalk)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro leaves

1/2 teaspoon sea salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly-ground black pepper

1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees F. Line two baking sheets with foil and spray with nonstick cooking spray.

2. Place the tofu in a non-terry dish towel or sturdy paper towel. Over the sink, wring out as much excess liquid as possible. Do this a few times until the tofu is dry and crumbly.

3. In a medium bowl, combine the tofu, ground pork, soy sauce, green onions, cilantro, sea salt, black pepper, and mix until smooth. Hint: Use your hands! I like to microwave a little of the mixture and taste it to see if it needs any more seasoning.

4. Roll into 1-inch balls and place them on the prepared baking sheets about an inch apart.

5. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the meatballs are golden and cooked through. Toss cooked meatballs with warm sauce and serve.

Sweet and spicy tamarind sauce
Makes about 3/4 cup of sauce

1/3 cup wet tamarind (about 3 ounces)

3/4 cup water

2 cloves garlic, minced finely

2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger (About 1-inch chunk ginger, peeled and grated)

1/4 cup, plus 2 tablespoons palm sugar (or light brown sugar)

2 tablespoons soy sauce

2 to 3 teaspoons sambal oelek (chili paste)

In a medium saucepan, combine the tamarind paste with water. Bring to a gentle boil over medium heat and stir until the paste softens into a thick puree. Add the ginger, garlic, sugar, soy sauce, and chili paste. Keep stirring to prevent the sauce from burning or sticking, until the sauce becomes thick and sticky, about 10 minutes. Press this mixture through a fine sieve into a large bowl or deep dish to remove any solids. Gently stir the cooked meatballs into the warm sauce.

This sauce can also be made a few days ahead of serving, and reheated when needed.

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