Pearl Meatballs (zhen1zhu1wan2zi 珍珠丸子)

When I was still single and living with 2 other girls, my housemate Lily made zhen zhu wan zi and shared some with me. I suppose they are named pearl meatballs because they look like pearls due to the sticky rice coating! I would also dub them porcupine meatballs, because they also remind me of porcupines..

I think they are from Hubei, China, where my grandma was born. Regardless of their origin, they are pretty tasty. This dish still requires some Asian market ingredients, but is one of the easiest dishes involving sticky rice that I am familiar with. These meatballs are slightly fancier than “regular” Chinese meatballs, but only take a bit more time for a taste and appearance that are so worth it, in my opinion! If you like rolling snickerdoodle dough in cinnamon sugar, this recipe is for you 😉 I am sorry that there are no water chestnuts in this recipe, because Tim doesn’t like them. But, if you want to get some, chop up 5-6 water chestnuts to add to the filling ingredients.

Cooking, especially Chinese cooking, is a good fit for me in the sense that I don’t like to follow all the directions all the time, and I like to make substitutions when it’s more convenient! Please refer to the notes and substitutions sections for some tips for the like-minded.

Zhen Zhu Wan Zi Pearl Meatballs
Fresh out of the steamer, minus two! (One for Tim, one for me)

Zhen Zhu Wan Zi 


makes 23 ping-pong ball-sized meatballs

1/2 cup long or short sticky rice
2 Tbsp minced shrimp, about 10-11 dried shrimp
3 Tbsp finely chopped mushrooms from 4-5 small dried shiitake mushrooms
1.5 Tbsp minced ginger
3 Tbsp minced green onion (from two stalks)
1 lb lean ground turkey or pork
2 tsp Shaoxing wine (or rice wine ) (optional but recommended, if you use pork)
1/8 tsp white pepper powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 Tbsp soy sauce
2 1/2 tsp sesame oil

1) Preferably the day before, or as far in advance as possible: Clean the sticky rice by rinsing and sloshing in water until the water runs mostly clear. Cover the rice with room temperature water and soak overnight. Also, soak mushrooms and shrimp in just enough room temperature water to cover them.

2) The day of: Drain the water from the sticky rice with a colander or strainer. Transfer the sticky rice to a shallow bowl of some sort.

3) Mix all the other ingredients together, and stir well. Continue stirring in one direction until the meat forms a cohesive mass.

4) Form small meatballs with the meat filling. I have adopted my mom’s method of using a spoon with the dominant hand to scoop out the portion of meat, then using the spoon to scrape, lift, and rotate the meat against my non-dominant palm to form a nice sphere.

4) After you have formed the meatball, roll it gently in the soaked sticky rice, and try to coat all parts of the meatball.

5) Steam the meatballs for 15-20 minutes on high heat, or until the sticky rice coating has been completely cooked. Visually, it will go from opaque-ish white to pearly white and semi-translucent. (See what I did there? :D)

Zhen Zhu Wan Zi Pearl Meatballs
(I didn’t actually steam them on this plate, but you technically could..)

-If you didn’t soak your sticky rice for at least a few hours, I can’t guarantee that all the grains will steam evenly and within 15-20 minutes. There is no substitution for time, in this case. Mushrooms and shrimp, on the other hand, can definitely be cut (it will be much harder, as they will be crunchy) if they are only soaked for 5-10 minutes.
-On steaming: The best option is to line the steamer with napa cabbage leaves, cabbage
leaves, collard green leaves, or some sort of hearty vegetable that
will hold up to high heat and moisture. You could also put meatballs on a plate and steam them, but it will take quite a bit longer. The last ption is to
line the steamer with parchment paper. Note that the parchment paper
will collect juices from the filling, so you should definitely poke
small holes in the parchment to help release the liquid. Or, use one
small square of paper for each meatball, which is quite a bit of effort.
Or, if you didn’t think about water, which you should definitely drain
the paper halfway through cooking so as not to have soggy meatball
bottoms. If you didn’t read ahead, it’s still okay, and just remember
for next time.
-Note that this recipe worked for lean ground meat (mostly red with few white flecks); if you use fattier meat, you can refrigerate the filling for 15 or so minutes, or add an egg or a few teaspoons or cornstarch to the filling to help bind the ingredients better.
-You could use fresh shrimp and/or fresh shiitakes instead; in that case, ignore the measuring spoon amount and just go by the number of shrimp and mushrooms. Get the minimum amount specified for the dried, and for shrimp, the smallest sized shrimp will be more than sufficient.
-It was a busy day at the butcher, and they didn’t have pork already ground; I didn’t want to bother them so I got ground turkey. Yes, I used ground turkey, and we still loved it!
-The amounts of all the filling ingredients (with the exception of salt) are very forgiving, so no need to be EXACT. Change it up if you like! The amount are more of a reference/starting point; the goal is learn how to cook this dish to your liking, not just how to follow directions exactly.
-You will probably have leftover rice; you can cook them with your normal batch of rice. Or, you can steam them on their own and eat them with some dried pork… If you don’t mind that they probably touched smidgens of meat, you can steam the rice and sprinkle some sugar on top for a snack.


  1. Jonathan

    Thank you so much, Megan for posting this recipe! I tried it for the first time, and it turned out great. Keep \’em coming!

    • Megan

      Glad you enjoyed it!

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