The idea of taking an animal and making it meat; taking said meat and making it ball-shaped; taking said ball shape, applying heat and making it cooked, is certainly not unique to Spain. Meatballs are one of those utterly international foodstuffs.
The U.S. have their tasty but bastardised version of the Italian meatballs, served with pasta. The Italians serve their meatballs, polpetti, sans pasta. The Swedish version, so proffered by IKEA, is served with a spiced brown creamy sauce. In Belgium there are boulettes, in Germany Frikadelle, the UK has the now eyebrow-raising name of faggots. Kofta in the Middle East, wanzi in China, bakso in Indonesia, kotlet in Russia, tsukune in Japan, kjøttboller in Norway, the list is endless. Everyone, all over the world, seems to love cooking meatballs.
It is a foodstuff full of innuendo and utterly lip-smacking when served piping hot on a plate or in a bowl, but what’s so special about the Spanish version? Should we be thinking about Spanish meatballs next time and forget the Italian ones served in the famous tomato sauce?
Well, let’s meet the tapa: albóndigas!
It is likely – given the name – that albóndigas as we know them here originated with the Arabs. However, there are Roman recipes that were collated by Marco Gavio Apicio, the Jamie Oliver of the 1st century, that are meatball-like.
The word albóndiga is undoubtedly Arabic, thus probably Moorish in origin as concerns Spain. Always be on the look out for ‘al’ words to let you know there were once Arab. Alhambra, alcachofa (artichoke), alfombra (rug), alcaparra (caper), alcohol, Alicante, etc.
There is a little confusion out there in the ether whether the original pronunciation was al-bunduqa (meaning the ball you eat) or al-banadiq. Either way it seems that the Moors living in Spain, in Al-Andalus – the former Arab Spanish empire that controlled most of Spain and Portugal from 711 to 1492 – were the ones responsible for imparting this dish and its methodology unto the country. Your classic food legacy.
It was probably a variation of the fried Middle Eastern kofta. Ibn Razin al-Tubigí in the 12th century writes that they were comprised of mince meat, spices and egg whites and were cooked in salted water. In the 13th century there is another recipe that they are fried with garlic, so things were starting to take a turn for the Mediterranean.
It’s not until the 17th century that we seem to have a more ‘Spanish’ version. Hernández de Maceras in his cooking compendium talks about making them with mince meat, beaten eggs, breadcrumbs, chopped up fat, garlic, green leaves and spices. From then on various writers and gastronomes have remarked on the various iterations and changes in the life and career of the Spanish meatball, noting regional differences and alternate cooking styles (to boil or to fry).
But, in conclusion, thank you Moors!
Given the popular nature of the dish, Spanish meatballs can take many forms. Generally speaking the balls are made of beef mince meat (maybe mixing in some pork too), breadcrumbs, eggs, garlic, seasoning and spices like parsley and cumin. Usually the balls themselves don’t vary that much, apart from in size, but the sauce…
After rolling up and frying your balls, steady, there are endless possibilities with the sauce. You can go ‘Italian’ and make a sort of tomato marinara style, go fondue with a cheesy one, head to the garden with diced peas, carrots and other veg, add wild mushrooms, add aubergine, add chilli, add orange and saffron, the list goes on. Each cook, each mother, each grandmother has their own style and that’s part of the fun and mystery of ordering them.
I prefer what I deem to be the most ‘classical’ version: onion, carrot, garlic, white wine, seasoning and then the juices from the cooking. This is wonderful to soak up with hunks of crusty local bread, but also isn’t so saucy, if you’ll forgive the pun, that it overshadows the meatball itself.
Where I eat:
Madrid – Bodegas Ricla (Calle Cuchilleros, 6), El Rincón Abulense (Calle Caballero de Gracia, 18), Bolero Meatballs (Calle de las Conchas, 4), Taberna Carmencita (Calle Libertad, 16), dNorte (Calle Mesonero Romanos, 8), La Despensa de Carmen (Calle de Santiago, 14), Taberna La Casta (Calle Bernardo López Garcia, 1), Bar Cerveriz (Plaza de San Miguel, 2).
Barcelona – Botigueta del Bon Mejar (Passeig de Verdum, 37).
Requena – Mesón de la Villa (Plaza de Albornoz, 13).
Granada – Los Manueles (Calle Reyes Católicos, 61).
Zaragoza – El Puerto de Santa María (Paseo de la Mina, 5).
What I drink with it:
Meatballs are, by definition, meaty, but they are also fairly light on the palate. A mid-sized red wine will go perfectly. Perhaps a bottle of Brunus from DO Montsant.
What I listen to:
Lost on You – LP