With a sweet, savory, soy-pineapple glaze sauce these Hawaiian-inspired Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs make delicious appetizers, rice bowls sandwiches and more!
These Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs came about from a fun ongoing project Scott and I have been doing with two of our grandchildren that live nearby, Emmy (7) and Hayes (4). When school started this fall and we learned that it would be an online learning experience, we offered to be “the specialists” once a week. We figured it would give mom a little break and us a wonderful opportunity to spend time and invest intentionally in these sweet little lives.
Our son and daughter-in-law loved the idea and we’ve been having “school” here at The Café every Wednesday since the beginning of September. We decided to revolve our time together around a study of the United States, so each week, Emmy and Hayes take turns choosing a state they’d like to learn about.
We learn lots of fun facts, read books or watched videos about the particular state and sometimes even have costumes that correlate to that state. Although Scott and I both teach the general facts, Scott (a music teacher in a prior life) always finds a fun song about the state and I, being the “cooking” teacher, research at least one recipe that is specific to the state we’re studying.
Mom and dad come for dinner on Wednesday to enjoy the food we’ve made together, BUT, before the meal, we give them a written test on that week’s “state”. Emmy and Hayes were quite gleeful during the first few “tests”, with them knowing so many interesting (and often obscure) facts about the state that mom and dad couldn’t answer. However, the “big kids” have gotten smart and now do a bit of studying and research of their own before they come! Their grades have definitely improved, haha!
Several weeks ago, we studied the beautiful state of Hawaii. Emmy had a grass skirt to wear and Hayes, a colorful Hawaiian shirt. Mom and dad received leis when they arrived and we dined on these Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs in rice bowls. Everyone LOVED the dinner that evening and I knew that I would be making these meatballs again. AND that the recipe was definitely “blog-worthy” (our highest accolade here at The Café). So now it’s time to share it with you!
What are Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs?
Huli Huli Chicken was first created in 1955 by Ernest Morgado, a Honolulu businessman. It was simply chicken which had been marinated in his mother’s teriyaki-style sauce and grilled. Over the years, Huli Huli chicken has become super popular with a zillion various recipes showing up when doing an online search.
According to The New York Times Cooking, “The original recipe is a trade secret, but you can find many slightly different variations on the internet, typically including ginger, garlic, soy sauce, something sweet (honey, brown sugar or maple syrup) and something acidic (vinegar, white wine, lime juice or pineapple juice).”
Most Huli Huli chicken recipes call for chicken thighs or bone-in chicken pieces. I went a different route and decided on meatballs made with ground chicken and adapted my Vietnamese Chicken Meatballs, going with the classic Huli Huli ingredients for the sauce. My sauce employs sesame oil, garlic, fresh ginger, tomato paste, low sodium soy sauce, sweet chili sauce, brown sugar and rice vinegar, which is all combined in a saucepan and simmered until reduced, sticky, sweet and oh so delicious!
The problem with chicken meatballs…
Chicken meatballs are delicious and can take on so many flavor profiles. And they’re leaner and healthier than other meatball options. But if you’ve ever made meatballs with ground chicken, you might have noticed that it’s not the easiest thing to work with. Ground chicken is much wetter than ground beef and can be difficult to roll into nice round balls as it’s soft and the meat tends to stick to your hands when rolling. The meatballs also tend to flatten when fried or baked so instead of “balls” you end up with little rounded disks.
How to roll round chicken meatballs
I’ve done a bit of experimenting and found a few things to be really helpful when rolling ground chicken into meatballs:
- Keep your hands wet with a little water when rolling. Just a drop or two, not dripping wet hands. I like to roll my meatballs near the sink and keep my water just barely on. Each time I roll a new meatball, I put my hand under the faucet and wet it with a drop or two of water. It’s crazy the difference it makes. Check out the picture below. On the left, is a meatball rolled with dry hands and the right shows a meatball rolled with wet hands. A few drops of water make the difference between nice smooth meatballs and shaggy, messy meatballs (and messy hands!).
- Roll the ground chicken into balls using the palms of your hands and light pressure. Rolling ground chicken with too much pressure will result in flat, irregular shaped meatballs.
- Adding an egg and some Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) also helps the meatballs retain a rounded shape. You don’t want to add too much Panko though or the meatballs will end up dry instead of moist and juicy.
- All this being said, these are chicken meatballs and you may still find that your meatballs have one side that has a slightly flatter surface after baking, but if you follow the tips above, they will turn out much rounder and prettier. Just serve them with the flat side down and they will look beautiful!
So there you have it! A delicious new recipe that is a bonus from our Café “school” experience. I love that these Huli Huli chicken meatballs can be made ahead and simply rewarmed in the microwave, oven or on the stovetop making them great for busy evenings when time is short. Bon Appétit!
Café Tips for making these Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs
- There are lots of ways to serve these Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs:
- Serve them with some pretty appetizer forks for a party or a delicious hors d’oeuvre.
- Serve them as rice bowls with steamed broccoli or broccolini or with diced cucumbers and diced fresh pineapple.
- Make a meatball sandwich, Hawaiian style! Warm a crusty roll or baguette and stuff with meatballs. Serve the sauce on the side for dipping.
- Serve with grilled pineapple and rice.
- As mentioned, above, wet your hands lightly before rolling the meatballs. It will keep the mixture from sticking (see the pictures above).
- I like to use a 2-tablespoon cookie scoop for doling out the dough. It makes the process super easy and ensures consistent size meatballs.
- I spray my scooper with non-stick cooking spray to make scooping super easy.
- Make bigger or smaller meatballs according to your taste. You’ll have to adjust the cooking time though just a bit. Larger meatballs will take a little longer to cook through and smaller ones, less time.
- This recipe calls for 2 tablespoons of tomato paste. Tomato paste usually comes in a 4-ounce can. You can freeze the excess if desired, but tomato paste also comes in a tube and lasts for months in the refrigerator. I like to keep a tube in my fridge just for recipes like this.
- This Huli Huli meatball recipe also calls for sweet chili sauce. Sweet chili sauce is exactly what the name implies. It’s a delicious condiment made from chili peppers, rice wine, garlic and honey or sugar. Sweet chili sauce can be found in the Asian section at most larger grocery stores. It will keep well in the refrigerator for 6-9 months.
- Want to save last-minute stress and strain? Prep these Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs and the sauce in the morning, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Pull them out about 45 minutes before dinner and allow them to sit for 15 minutes. Then just pop them in the oven as directed and bring the sauce to a simmer over low heat… while you enjoy your guests!
- Or, even easier, make them completely in advance and just re-warm right before serving.
- Instead of 1 regular size bell pepper, sometimes I like to use the mini bell peppers in a combination of colors (red, orange and yellow). If I use the mini peppers, I use 5-6, depending on their size.
Thought for the day:
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done,
and proclaim that His name is exalted.
What we’re listening to for inspiration:
If you enjoyed this recipe, please come back and leave a star rating and review! It’s so helpful to other readers to hear other’s results and ideas for variations.
With a sweet, savory, soy-pineapple glaze/sauce these Hawaiian-inspired Huli Huli Chicken Meatballs make delicious appetizers, rice bowls and sandwiches!
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil
- 2 medium cloves garlic finely minced
- 1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 cups pineapple juice
- ½ cup low sodium soy sauce
- ½ cup sweet chili sauce
- ⅓ cup brown sugar
- 2 tablespoons rice vinegar
- 2 teaspoons cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 pound ground chicken
- ½ medium sweet onion
- 1 medium red bell pepper Or a combination of different colored mini bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped.
- ¼ cup finely chopped fresh cilantro (stems and leaves)
- 1 tablespoon finely minced fresh ginger
- 2 garlic cloves finely minced
- ½ cup panko crumbs
- 1 large egg
- 1 tablespoon sesame oil more for drizzling
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ teaspoon black pepper
- sesame seeds for garnish, if desired
Heat sesame oil over medium-low heat in a medium saucepan. When hot, add the garlic, ginger and tomato paste. Cook for 1 minute until fragrant then add the remaining ingredients, except for the cornstarch and water.
Bring to a boil and cook for 8-10 minutes or until reduced to about one half of the original volume. Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl or cup. Add to the sauce mixture while stirring. Cook the sauce for another 30 seconds, stirring continuously. Remove from heat and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 450˚F with a rack positioned near the top of the oven. Line a sheet pan with foil for easy cleanup. Spray the foil lightly with baking spray or rub with a bit of oil.
Combine all of the meatball ingredients in a large bowl. Using your hands or a sturdy spatula, mix until combined. Using an ice cream scoop or spoon, scoop up the mixture into 1 or 1½-inch portions. With slightly wet hands, roll each portion into a ball and arrange them at least 2-inches apart of the prepared baking sheet.
Brush the meatballs with additional sesame oil or olive oil and bake for 8 minutes.
Remove from the oven and, using a fork, dip each meatball into the sauce then return to the baking pan. Bake for another 5-6 minutes until meatballs are nicely glazed.
Remove meatballs from the oven. Serve them in rice bowls drizzled with sauce or as an appetizer. Sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired, for garnish. To serve as an appetizer, brush the meatballs with more sauce and serve with toothpicks or cocktail forks and the remainder of the sauce in a small bowl for dipping.