A different style of dumplings, Pearl Balls are steamed morsels that don't use wrappers but instead feature a coating of sticky rice around the exterior. They are impressive, and truly an excellent addition to a dim sum menu. You can easily make them gluten-free as well!
(This recipe was originally published in September 2015, but was updated with new photos and content in 2022).
These steamed rice-coated meatballs are found in both Chinese and Japanese cuisine, with variations of course. I've enjoyed these rice-coated meatballs both as part of Chinese dim sum meals and also at Japanese yakitori restaurants. This recipe is for a more Chinese version of them.
These meatballs are called "pearl balls" because that's exactly what they look like: Pearlescent balls covered in glistening sticky rice. The interior is juicy and flavorful, and the exterior boasts chewy, sticky rice. Best of all, if you use a gluten-free soy sauce (like Tamari), these pearl balls will be completely gluten-free.
Ground meat is mixed with a fragrant mixture of ginger and scallions, with some finely diced water chestnuts for crunch. A little bit of cornstarch and egg bind everything together.
These unusual dumplings need a head start to soak the rice that coats them. Otherwise, they're generally easier to make than dumplings that require a homemade wrapper.
Pearl balls serve as a great example of just how different dumplings can be. They don't all have the same equation (dough wrapper + filling). Sometimes in place of dough there are other types of starch or wrappers that fit the bill.
- Ground Meat: Recipes for pearl balls range from using ground pork to chicken or turkey. I usually prefer ground pork, but have also made it with ground turkey in the past with good results. If using ground poultry, use dark meat to yield juicier balls with better flavor.
- Sticky Rice: The type of rice used in these pearl balls goes by several names: glutinous, sticky, and sweet are just three of them. I use Koda Farms brand. Soak the rice in plenty of water overnight and then drain and dry it thoroughly for the best results.
- Water Chestnuts: Water chestnuts are a commonly used ingredient in Chinese cooking, and are easy to find already peeled and sliced in cans. They add texture in the form of a bit of crunch to these pearl balls. You only need a few tablespoons of finely chopped water chestnuts. Use the remainder of the can for other recipes such as Bacon Wrapped Water Chestnuts, Yuk Sung (Chicken Lettuce Wraps), Mushroom San Choy Bow (Vegetarian Lettuce Wraps), or Chinese Ground Beef and Zucchini.
How to make it
Soak the sticky rice in cold water overnight. Drain the soaked rice and dry the grains well, spreading them out on a sheet pan and patting dry with a paper towel. Drier grains adhere to the meat mixture better.
Combine the ground meat, water chestnuts, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch, egg, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl until well blended (PHOTOS 1-2).
Divide the mixture into 24 meatballs, lightly wetting the palms of your hands with water to help shape them (the mixture will be wet and sticky). Refrigerate for 20 minutes to firm up.
Roll the meatballs in the soaked rice, ensuring each meatball is completely covered in rice grains (PHOTOS 3-4).
Prepare bamboo steamer trays by lining with lightly oiled parchment paper. Place the pearl balls on the steamer tray, spacing them about 1 inch apart so they are not touching.
Stack the trays carefully and cover with a lid. Place the steamer over boiling water, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes until the rice grains are cooked through. Serve pearl balls with soy dipping sauce, if desired.
Refrigerate leftover dumplings, return them to room temperature, and steam them for about 5 minutes to reheat.
The raw meat mixture is quite sticky and soft, but don't be discouraged. Once you divide the meat and shape them into balls, they will firm up a bit in the fridge and will be much easier to roll in the rice and re-shape into nice neat balls if needed.
Similar to when making meatballs, you may have a bit of the meat's juices ooze out and coagulate on your pearl balls or in your steamer tray. I find that this tends to happen more when you're using meat that has previously been frozen. It's simple enough to use a spoon or butter knife to just swipe away some of these little bits before you serve these up.
Although these pearl balls are tasty on their own, I recommend serving them with soy dipping sauce which will add even more flavor and soak nicely into the sticky rice coating.
Other recipes you may like
- Har Gow (Crystal Shrimp Dumplings)
- Char Siu Sou (Chinese Roast Pork Pastry Puffs)
- Chinese Scallion Pancakes (Cong You Bing)
- Pork and Cabbage Dumplings
- Chicken and Mushroom Siu Mai
- Ants Climbing a Tree (Ma Yi Shang Shu)
- Strange Flavor Chicken (Bang Bang Chicken / Guài wèi jī sī)
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Pearl Balls (Zhēnzhū Wánzi)
- 1 cup (200 grams) sticky/sweet/glutinous rice, long or short grain variety soaked overnight in cold water (cover by 2 inches)
- 1 pound (450 grams) ground pork, chicken, or turkey
- 3 tablespoons (20 grams) finely diced water chestnuts
- 2 tablespoons (10 grams) finely chopped scallions
- 1 ½ tablespoons (10 grams) minced fresh ginger
- 2 teaspoons (10 ml) light (regular) soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon (15 ml) Shaoxing rice wine, sake, or dry sherry
- 1 tablespoon (8 grams) cornstarch
- 1 large egg, beaten
- 1 teaspoon (5 grams) salt
- A few grinds of black pepper
- Drain the soaked rice and dry the grains well, spreading them out on a sheet pan and patting dry with a paper towel. Drier grains adhere to the meat mixture better.
- Combine the ground meat, water chestnuts, scallions, ginger, soy sauce, rice wine, cornstarch, egg, salt, and pepper in a mixing bowl until well blended. Divide the mixture into 24 meatballs, lightly wetting the palms of your hands with water to help shape them (the mixture will be wet and sticky). Refrigerate for 20 minutes to firm up.
- Roll the meatballs in the soaked rice, ensuring each meatball is covered in rice grains.
- Prepare bamboo steamer trays by lining with lightly oiled parchment paper. Ideally, three 9-inch steamer trays will comfortably hold all 24 balls (8 per tray). If you don’t have enough trays, you can steam them in batches.
- Place the pearl balls on the steamer tray, spacing them about 1 inch apart so they are not touching. Stack the trays carefully and cover with a lid. Place the steamer over boiling water, then reduce the heat to medium-low. Steam for 15 to 20 minutes until the rice grains are cooked through.
- Serve with soy dipping sauce, if desired. Refrigerate leftover dumplings, return them to room temperature, and steam them for about 5 minutes to reheat.
- I like to put the rice in a container with tall sides and gently shake the bowl around to help coat each meatball with rice.
- If you use tamari or another gluten-free soy sauce, this entire dish will be gluten-free!
- Use dark meat for the ground poultry options, although pork is preferable overall, and generally has the best flavor.
- Adapted from Dumplings All Day Wong
*All nutritional information is based on third-party calculations and should be considered estimates. Actual nutritional content will vary with brands used, measuring methods, portion sizes and more.*