In the central Taiwanese city of Changhua, just next door to Taichung, one of the alleged birthplaces of bubble tea, shops and stalls serve another local snack that looks a lot like a giant translucent boba. It’s about the size of a fist and fills a small bowl. It’s jiggly and soft, yet pulls back from chopsticks with considerable resistance. Unlike its sweet neighbor boba, though, this wobbly treat is entirely savory. Enclosed inside is a meatball of pork and bamboo shoots, seasoned with a light touch of soy sauce, sugar, white pepper, and perhaps a smidgen of rice wine for balance, and the finished package is topped with a coral-colored sweet chile glaze, sometimes mixed with a bit of soy paste.
The dish is a miraculous hybrid, existing in a delicious gray zone between meatball, dumpling, and boba. In Taiwanese Hokkien, its name, bawan (also transliterated as ba wan or bah uân), translates simply to “meatball,” but in English the translucent skin inspires a more dazzling name: “crystal meatball.”
Bawan first appeared in 1898, when a flood hit Changhua and food became scarce. According to the Changhua County Cultural Affairs Bureau, the story goes that during the city’s disaster relief effort, temple scribe Fan Wan-Chu became possessed by a deity, which inspired him to create a dish that could feed locals in need. The result was a steamed dumpling, wrapped with readily available sweet potato starch, stuffed with equally available chunks of bamboo shoots.
Though the crystal meatball was born out of a short moment of desperation — and has since been augmented with pork in the filling, tapioca starch in the wrapper, and sauce for topping — all of the essential components run deep in the island’s culinary culture. Today, bawan has become a celebrated local specialty with regional variants all throughout Taiwan, but it’s also an enduring mascot for scrappy Taiwanese cuisine.
What makes bawan so good?
Bawan is usually eaten either as a snack or a light meal throughout the day, sometimes paired with a steaming hot bowl of fish ball soup for greater sustenance. Its main appeal is its texture; it should come out wiggling and wobbling without ever getting too stiff.
Fan made the wrapper for the original crystal meatball entirely from sweet potato starch, but that recipe can make the dough quite tough, more plasticky than supple. So vendors eventually added tapioca starch to create a more lucious, soft texture. Today, almost all crystal meatballs have a combination of the two starches.
Still, the ideal texture doesn’t come easily. To make the wrapper, a cook heats starch and water in a saucepan over low heat and stirs until a thick, white, pasty dough forms. Unlike wheat flour, which has gluten to give it structure and can be easily manipulated, a dough made out of sweet potato and tapioca starch has a texture more akin to mashed potatoes. It doesn’t hold up well, so vendors will usually paste a thin layer of starch across the inside of a well-oiled saucer, plop in the filling, and then cover it up with another layer of starch before steaming it.
“You need to have the skill to paste over the starch or else it won’t be even,” says Lin Wen Chun, the second-generation proprietor of Da Zhu Taiwanese Meatball in Changhua. Lin is a crystal meatball specialist whose father started up the shop nearly half a century ago.
The other difficult part is determining the right ratio of each starch. “You can’t just put in however much of each you want,” Lin insists. “It takes skill.” To keep the meatballs soft throughout the day, Lin stores his freshly steamed crystal meatballs in a vat of oil at the front of his store. He picks one up and bends it. “A good one shouldn’t crack and it should be transparent,” he says.
While there are all sorts of regional variants of the dish today, which might include shrimp or pork marinated in red yeast, the crystal meatballs from Changhua are distinguished by their lovely combo of pork and bamboo; the hearty meat is perfectly balanced out with the crunchy, fresh shoots.
What makes the crystal meatball unique to Taiwan?
While most people associate Taiwan today with filling bowls of beef noodle soup and flaky discs of scallion pancakes, the truth is that wheat flour was not utilized en masse on the island until the 1950s, when the American government started sending massive shipments of wheat to Taiwan as part of an international food aid initiative.
Prior to this, sweet potatoes and rice were the main carbs of choice on the island, sown and grown on farmlands occupied by the first major waves of Chinese immigrants to Taiwan in the 17th century. According to historical writings from that time, while rice was grown on half of all cultivated land, there simply just wasn’t enough of it to feed everyone. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, grow like weeds year-round, and both the tubers and leaves are edible. And because it was cheaper than rice — a cash crop that could be sold for a nice profit — the sweet potato was the dominant household carb of choice up until the mid-20th century. And unlike rice, which has to be reaped, threshed, and hauled before it can be consumed, the sweet potato was accessible to anyone with a shovel.
The sweet potato sustained generations of Taiwanese families and was embraced for its versatility. It could be roasted or boiled, or cut into cubes and thrown into a rice porridge to bulk it up. Before the advent of refrigeration, the best way to preserve excess amounts of sweet potato was to extract its starch and dehydrate it. The powdery white starch could be thrown into soups as a thickener, added into an egg omelet with oysters for a gooey, textural contrast, or rolled into chewy starch balls and steeped in sugar, a folk remedy said to cure heat stroke. And as Fan discovered, it could also be molded into a wrapper and steamed to form the casing of a hearty snack.
The crystal meatball’s filling is also entirely local, reflecting the island’s terroir. The subtropical climate provides abundant rainfall, so Taiwan is flush with bamboo, a plant that enjoys ample amounts of moisture. Eight varieties of bamboo are used frequently for food on the island, their shoots available at wet markets all year around. It was an accessible option for Fan, who needed to stuff his starch ball with something substantial and cheap.
Eventually, pork was added to bulk things up, a natural choice given that it is the most common protein in Taiwan. The domestic pig was introduced to the island in the 19th century by Chinese settlers (though wild boars have existed in Taiwan since the end of the last ice age). And because two-thirds of Taiwan is covered by mountains, the pig — which does not need a lot of space or grazing land — quickly became the de facto protein.
Where to eat crystal meatballs
Da Zhu Taiwanese Meatball (大竹肉圓)
When it comes to texture, few vendors can achieve what the Lin family has spent the last 50 years perfecting. The skin on the meatball is lush and almost cloud-like. The inside is simple and traditional, just pork and bamboo, but it packs a punch. To set the meatballs apart, the family accents each one with a dot of red food dye. “It’s like when women go out and put on lipstick,” says Lin. “It looks more lively.”
No. 106, Section 2, Zhangnan Rd, Changhua
Asan Meatball (阿三肉圓)
This place is an institution, and often commands long lines of customers who come for the whimsical take on the crystal meatball, which is stuffed with a potpourri of pork, Hokkaido scallops, and deep-fried duck eggs. It’s enclosed in a classic sweet potato and tapioca starch wrapper, and then deep-fried until it’s crisp on the edges.
No. 242, Sanmin Rd, Changhua
Huang’s Meatball (黃氏蝦仁肉圓)
Vendors in the southern city of Tainan will sometimes add in a bit of rice flour to the tapioca and sweet potato, which gives the final product a milky white hue. And instead of composing the wrapper dough inside a saucer, chefs will quickly form the meatball in their hands and plop it directly onto a lined bamboo steamer. If you look closely at the finished meatball, you can sometimes see ridges on the exterior from the indents of a chef’s fingers. Huang’s meatballs are stuffed with small plump shrimp and pork, a popular combination in the coastal south.
No. 1, Lane 2, Lane 79, Zhongshan Road, Tainan
Hsinchu Yulong Meatballs (新竹玉龍肉圓)
In the city of Hsinchu, vendors marinate their pork filling with red yeast, which gives it a distinctly sweet flavor similar to char siu. Yulong steams and then deep-fries its meatballs, which gives them a nice spring. To tie it all together, each meatball is dressed with a bright red sweet chile sauce.
No. 469, Nanda Rd, Hsinchu
Nanjichang Changhua Meatball (南機場 彰化肉圓)
While crystal meatballs can be found throughout the west coast of Taiwan, they are not as prominent in Taipei. This stall, opened in 1982, is a staunch exception. It makes Changhua-style meatballs with large chunks of pork and fine slivers of bamboo.
No. 36, Lane 313, Section 2, Zhonghua Rd, Taipei