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The vast continent of Asia has given rise to an incredible variety of finger foods – many of them conveniently ball-shaped and easy to eat in restaurants and as street food.
Rice balls, both sweet and savory, sesame balls, dumplings, and moon cakes are just a few of the Asian ball-shaped foods found in markets and eateries, as well as in many fusion restaurants around the world today.
This leaves the question: why are so many Asian foods ball-shaped?
Asian foods are often linked to festivals and traditions and, as such, are not only tasty but also have symbolic significance.
The ball shape of many Asian foods is thus not simply for convenient eating, the shape itself is significant. In Chinese culture, roundness symbolizes completeness and togetherness, and the full moon symbolizes prosperity and family harmony.
If you have developed an interest in Asian food (like me!) and are keen to know more about it, this article will introduce you to some of the most popular ball-shaped foods that are found in the streets, homes, and restaurants of many Asian countries.
Let’s dive a bit deeper into the fascinating world of ball-shaped foods from Asia!
In this post we'll cover:
- 1 The different meanings of Asian ball-shaped foods
- 2 What are the best Asian ball-shaped foods?
- 2.1 Takoyaki or Japanese octopus balls
- 2.2 Onigiri or Japanese rice balls
- 2.3 Jian Dui or Chinese sesame balls
- 2.4 Bao or Chinese steamed pork buns
- 2.5 Pearl balls
- 2.6 Jumeokbap or Korean rice balls
- 2.7 Tangyuan
- 2.8 Khanom Tom or coconut balls
- 2.9 Bánh Ran
- 2.10 Panipuri
- 2.11 Bakso Goreng or fried meatballs
- 2.12 Wanzi or Lion’s Head (meatballs)
- 2.13 Fish balls
- 3 FAQs
- 4 Takeaway
The different meanings of Asian ball-shaped foods
Because of their symbolic meanings, many Asian ball-shaped delicacies are traditionally eaten during festivals and celebrations.
Rice balls and moon cakes, which mimic the shape of the full harvest moon, signify family unity and the sweetness of the sticky rice ball symbolizes a rich, sweet life.
Zongzi, Chinese rice balls with different fillings, wrapped in bamboo or reed leaves, are traditionally eaten during the Dragon Boat Festival which falls on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar.
Golden brown dumplings are believed to bring luck. Their shape resembles gold nuggets which symbolize wealth and treasure.
Traditionally a coin is put in a dumpling and the one who eats it will become wealthier. Different dumpling ingredients also have different meanings.
Celery implies hard labor leads to a prosperous life. Leek represents eternal prosperity, and cabbage means a hundred methods to make a fortune.
Any new Year celebration would not be complete without Tangyuan, a sweet dumpling with a chewy, sticky texture or pearl balls, meatballs coated with sticky rice.
It’s also traditional to eat sticky rice cakes on Chinese New Year.
The younger generation eats them in the hope of growing taller. For the older generation, eating sticky rice cakes symbolizes achieving a higher position in life.
The Mid-Autumn Festival always happens when the moon is full, and the special round cakes are eaten during this time to celebrate the moon.
These pastries, called mooncakes, have a thin exterior and a sweet, sticky filling. The most traditional fillings are sweet red bean paste, lotus paste, or nuts.
Takoyaki, Japanese octopus balls, is a quintessential Japanese street food that is eaten during the summer festivals in Japan.
Also check out my list of 43 of the best, most delicious & unusual Asian food recipes to try!
What are the best Asian ball-shaped foods?
Whether you prefer sweet or savory foods, whether you are a vegetarian or a meat lover, you will certainly be able to find something delicious to sample from the extensive range of Asian ball-shaped foods that are available.
To tempt your taste buds, we have picked a few to describe in greater detail.
This might encourage you to try something new when you go traveling or it may even inspire you to track down a recipe and create some of these dishes yourself at home.
One of the great things about Asian food is that it is simple and easy to make as long as you have access to the authentic ingredients, especially the sauces and pastes.
Luckily, these days you don’t have to live in Asia to be able to buy these – they are available in specialist shops in most countries around the world.
Takoyaki or Japanese octopus balls
Takoyaki is a ball-shaped Japanese dumpling that’s so good that even a minor planet was named after it.
Asteroid 6562 Takoyaki was named after this octopus-in-batter snack by children who gave the name the loudest applause at a space-themed event in Japan.
Commonly known as octopus balls, Takoyaki is a quintessential Japanese street food that’s found especially at summer festivals in Japan.
Takoyaki are round balls of fluffy dough that are smothered with a special savory Takoyaki sauce and have a tasty piece of octopus meat at the center (although you can also make them vegan)
The use of dashi and egg gives the dough a unique flavor that pairs well with the savory fillings and salty sauces and garnishes.
These balls are often served in paper dishes resembling little boats, with toothpicks rather than chopsticks.
Make your own takoyaki at home with a special takoyaki pan or takoyaki maker
Onigiri or Japanese rice balls
Adored by all ages, onigiri are a huge part of Japanese daily life.
These tasty savory snacks are the staple for school and work lunches and for many outdoor activities and events and can be eaten hot or cold.
In some ways, they are the Japanese equivalent of energy bars – the perfect tasty snack to provide a quick boost of energy during a busy day.
Thought to be one of the very first traveling foods, onigiri was invented as a way to preserve fresh rice for longer. They were made to feed travelers, samurai or soldiers on the road, and farmers in the fields.
The method was to fill the rice with a salty or sour ingredient as a natural preservative and lightly compact them into portable food that could be carried and eaten with the hands.
Salt was the initial preservative used in making the onigiri.
There are two main types of onigiri, those that are stuffed and those that have seasonings mixed in.
For the filled variety, umeboshi (pickled plums), cubes of salt-cured salmon, or tarako (cod roe) are often encased in the warm rice, and then eaten as is or wrapped in nori (dried seaweed).
For others, seasonings like toasted black sesame seeds, yukari (red shiso powder), or sakebushi (dried salmon flakes) are simply mixed with the rice and then shaped into the typical ball or triangle shape.
They are little triangular-shaped balls of rice. Yaki onigiri is most commonly coated in a dipping sauce and sesame seeds.
They are crispy on the outside but still have the same soft and fluffy Japanese rice texture on the inside. They can be eaten as is or stuffed with avocado and peanuts.
This combination of the crispy crust with the warm and soft rice makes yaki onigiri a simple yet delicious Japanese snack.
Jian Dui or Chinese sesame balls
Jian Dui is a well-known fried Chinese pastry made from glutinous rice flour. This delectable dessert is coated with sesame seeds which are crisp and chewy.
When the sesame balls are deep-fried, the dough expands leaving them hollow in the center.
This hollow is then filled with a sweetened filling of red bean paste, peanut paste, or lotus paste, depending on the region.
Sometimes called Smiling Mouth Cookies, these traditional sweet treats represent happiness and laughter, and are generally eaten on birthdays or other special family occasions.
Bao or Chinese steamed pork buns
Pronounced “bow” and also known as a ‘steamed bun’, Bao is a delicious, warm, fluffy treat of savory stuffing wrapped inside a sweet, white dough.
This bread-like dumpling is larger than the smaller steamed dumplings associated with dim sum. It is fist-sized and made with a mix of flour, yeast, sugar, baking powder, milk, and oil.
The sugar gives them a touch of sweetness and the milk content gives them their pure white color.
Once proved, the dough is formed into a bun shape and stuffed with different fillings, before being steamed.
Traditional bao buns look like little pouches with a small pleat decoration on top or are formed into a smooth and spherical ‘snowball’ shape.
The most common filling for bao is barbeque pork, accompanied by a light sticky sauce. Alternative fillings are beef, fish, or glazed mushrooms.
When it comes to the dip, hoisin sauce, sweet chili, or a simple soy sauce with sesame oil make great pairings. Bao also goes well with some bouncy or zingy veggies like pickled cucumber.
Pearl balls originated in China’s Hunan region, where they’re considered a holiday or special occasion dish.
Deliciously meaty and juicy with a sticky rice coating, they are often served at banquet dinners for the Chinese New Year and for birthday celebrations.
They are perfect for a party where they can be served on toothpicks and consumed in a single bite.
The name comes from the fact they look like giant pearls, as the grains of rice turn pearly in color when cooked. The sheen of the pearl ball comes from the short-grain glutinous rice it’s wrapped in.
Some variations use a light soy sauce for the rice, but then the balls lose the pearlescent glow when they come out of the steamer.
These tasty balls are traditionally made with minced pork with shitake mushrooms, water chestnuts, green onions, and seasonings.
The meat mixture is shaped into small balls, rolled in glutinous rice, and steamed to meaty perfection.
Don’t confuse pearl balls with tapioca balls that are made from the cassava plant
Jumeokbap or Korean rice balls
Jumeokbap literally translated means “fist rice”. “Jumeok” means fist and “bap” means rice.
Together the literal translation is “fist rice” because these rice balls are molded by hand to the size of a fist.
The rice balls must be shaped by hand to be considered authentic. If a mold or press is used to shape them, it is not technically jumeokbap.
In South Korea, these rice balls are often part of a packed lunch, a picnic, or an accompaniment to very spicy food.
Generally, they are made with seaweed flakes or with carrot and onion mixed into the rice.
But this versatile on-the-go meal can be made with a variety of fillings including vegetables and meat.
The Lantern Festival marks the traditional day for families to eat tangyuan.
This is the day of the first full moon in the Lunar New Year and the traditional food for this holiday is the tangyuan, shaped round and white like the moon itself.
This delicious, sweet dumpling is made with glutinous rice flour which gives it a chewy, gooey, and sticky texture.
It can either be served in its simplest form, like a plain white ball, or stuffed with fillings like black sesame, red bean paste, or peanut paste.
These dumplings are often served in a bowl of translucent, sugary soup, sometimes enhanced by ginger, and other times accompanied by sweet, fermented rice and aromatic osmanthus flowers.
For many Chinese families in mainland China as well as overseas, tangyuan is typically eaten together with family. The round shape of the balls and the bowls in which they are served symbolize family cohesion.
While tangyuan began as a traditional delicacy eaten during festivals, it has now evolved into a dessert that is consumed all year round.
As it became more widespread, variations have been introduced and new fillings, shapes and colors of the glutinous rice are now available.
Chocolate, mashed potato, and pumpkin have replaced the more traditional fillings.
Khanom Tom or coconut balls
Thai desserts are characterized by sweet syrups, coconut cream, tropical fruits, and sweet sticky rice.
Khanom tom is a traditional Thai dessert consisting of boiled rice flour dumplings, coated with shredded coconut, and stuffed with a filling of shredded coconut melted with palm sugar and coconut milk.
The coconut filling is commonly infused with flower fragrance by using scented candles, while pandan leaves or butterfly pea extract are often added to the dough for color, fragrance, and flavor.
These soft and aromatic coconut rice flour balls are available in markets throughout Southeast Asia, but they are also commonly sold at street stalls.
Banh Ran is a deep-fried glutinous rice ball from northern Vietnamese cuisine. In Vietnamese, bánh means “cake” and rán means “fried.”
Its outer shell is made from glutinous rice flour and covered with white sesame seeds. The filling is made from sweetened mung bean paste and scented with jasmine flower essence.
Traditionally, the filling should be separated from the shell so that if one shakes the bánh rán, one can feel the filling rattle against the inside of the shell.
Bánh rán is very similar to a Chinese fried glutinous rice ball but the Chinese version is slightly sweeter and does not have jasmine essence and has fillings such as lotus paste or red bean paste.
Panipuri is a street snack that is extremely popular in India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal.
Small in size, it consists of a hollow puri (Indian unleavened bread) that is fried until it is very crisp, then stuffed with a combination of ingredients including potato, chickpeas, coriander, chili, and chutney.
Pani (flavored water) is then added, giving the filled ball a burst of flavor when eaten.
Over the years panipuri has been given a range of different names, many of which refer to the popping noises that it makes when eaten, because of its crispiness.
Bakso Goreng or fried meatballs
Bakso goreng is a crispy snack of Indonesian-Chinese origin.
The fried, or goreng, version is one of the variants of bakso, a meatball preparation served in restaurants and food stalls across Indonesia.
The meatballs are prepared using a combination of chicken, beef, and pork. The ground meat is then mixed with pepper, garlic, sesame oil, flour, eggs, starch, sugar, and salt.
The meatballs are deep-fried to achieve the golden brown, crispy exterior, and are usually served hot with chili sauce on the side.
Wanzi or Lion’s Head (meatballs)
The Chinese name for this dish is simply Lion’s Head without even mentioning meatballs.
When the dish is served, the meatballs, which are the size of a tennis ball, resemble a lion’s head with the cabbage as its mane.
Lions are a very auspicious symbol in Chinese culture and represent prosperity, strength, and vigor.
There are different ways to prepare lion’s head meatballs and every recipe has its variations. Most traditionally, they are made from pork and are steamed with cabbage.
They can also be fried or baked. They are generally served with a sweet soy sauce or a sweet chili sauce.
Also check out this yummy Filipino Adobo Meatballs with sauce Recipe
In coastal villages, throughout Asia, where fishing is the main livelihood, the remnants of the catch left unsold are often brought home by the fishermen.
The fish are then scaled and skinned, and every bit of meat is scraped off with the back of a knife or spoon.
The meat is finely minced and beaten in one direction until the natural collagens combine and stick together.
Saltwater is sprinkled on the meat as it is being worked, which both tightens the texture and flavors the meat.
The resulting paste is then squeezed between the thumb and index finger into smooth balls that are dropped into cold, salted water or cooked in boiling water.
Fish balls are sold either raw, soaked in light brine, or cooked. They are popular when served with noodles or deep-fried as snacks.
In Hong Kong, the popular noodle carts serve up fish balls cooked in a curry sauce.
If you think fish balls are boring, you should check out fun fish-shaped taiyaki!
What are Chinese sesame balls made of?
Sesame balls are made with a sticky rice flour dough, filled with a sweet paste, usually red bean paste, rolled in sesame seeds, and fried until crispy on the outside, but still soft and chewy on the inside.
They’re called zhīma qiú in Mandarin.
When were sesame balls invented?
Sesame balls, Jian Dui, date back to the Tang Dynasty (7th century CE) in China. These little pastries were a popular palace food in Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty.
What is in glutinous rice flour?
Many of the ball-shaped Asian foods are made with glutinous rice flour.
In spite of its name, glutinous rice flour is gluten-free.
It is milled flour made by grinding cooked and dehydrated kernels of long or short-grain glutinous rice (Oryza sativa glutinosa). This type of rice is also known as sticky rice or sweet rice.
What are some of the key flavors in Asian cuisine?
Asian cuisine is known for its variety of flavors. Common Asian ingredients include seafood, rice, garlic, ginger, sesame seeds, onions, and chilies.
When cooking Asian food, you will also need sesame oil, oyster sauce, hoisin sauce, and soy sauce. Some of the most common cooking methods include stir-frying, steaming, and deep-frying.
What does the dumpling symbolize?
Dumplings are considered ‘lucky’ as they represent ‘wealth’. They are shaped like gold or silver ingots which were used as currency during the Ming Dynasty.
Sweet sticky rice cakes (similar to dumplings) represent a rich, sweet, prosperous life.
Did you know dumplings in China are called shumai and in Japan gyoza?
Now that you are aware of the wonderful taste experiences waiting to be enjoyed among the many ball-shaped Asian foods, perhaps you will feel inspired to take an Asian food cooking class, search out some new recipes or at the very least feel some excitement about trying a new cuisine next time you choose to eat out.
Check out our new cookbook
Bitemybun's family recipes with complete meal planner and recipe guide.
Try it out for free with Kindle Unlimited:Read for free
Joost Nusselder, the founder of Bite My Bun is a content marketer, dad and loves trying out new food with Japanese food at the heart of his passion, and together with his team he's been creating in-depth blog articles since 2016 to help loyal readers with recipes and cooking tips.