Saliva Chicken Meatballs

Photo by Mandy Lee
Author Notes

This is a playful adaptation of a very popular appetizer seen in almost every Sichuan restaurant in China, and perhaps in the United States, too.

As Chinese culture has a quirky sense of humor when it comes to naming food (such as “rolling donkey in dusts,” “wok helmet,” and “dog biting pig,” to name a few), this dish is known as the “saliva chicken.” Not only it will make you salivate upon first look, but the combination of soft poached chicken sitting in a spicy and numbing puddle of sesame sauce and chile oil is dangerously addictive.

There’s a yakitori joint down the hill from where we live in Hong Kong, and they add chopped chicken knuckles (the soft cartilage between the bones of drumsticks and thighs) to their minced chicken sticks. That combination is perfect for this dish and instantly kicks the meatballs to another level of contrasting textures and flavors. If you can’t find chicken knuckles, just omit them and the meatballs will still be delicious.

Editors' Note: Here's the link to Mandy's Ultimate Chile Oil recipe, called for below.

Reprinted with permission from From THE ART OF ESCAPISM COOKING: A Survival Story, with Intensely Good Flavors by Mandy Lee, published by William Morrow Cookbooks. Copyright © 2019 by Mandy Lee. Reprinted courtesy of Harper Collins Publishers ( @ Lady and pups

  • Prep time 1 hour 45 minutes
  • Cook time 14 minutes
  • Serves 4 as an appetizer
  • Meatballs
  • 1 pound (450 grams) boneless skin-on chicken thighs
  • 1/4 pound (105 grams) chicken knuckles/cartilage (if unavailable, omit)
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons grated ginger
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons sake
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons fish sauce
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons ground white pepper
  • Canola oil, for shaping the meatballs
  • Sesame Sauce (below)
  • Ultimate Sichuan Chile Oil
  • Finely ground Sichuan peppercorns, for dusting
  • Sesame Sauce
  • 1/2 cup (127 grams) tahini
  • 3 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/2 cup crushed ice, plus more if needed
  • 2 tablespoons finely chopped cilantro or scallions
In This Recipe
  1. Meatballs
  2. Keep 50 percent of the skin on the chicken thighs (discard the rest or use it to make schmaltz for another recipe), then cut the thighs into small chunks. Scatter on a sheet pan and flash-freeze for 1 hour, until hardened. Meanwhile, season the chicken knuckles, if using, with a little bit of salt and pepper, then cook in a skillet over medium-high heat until evenly browned on all sides. Finely mince them until they resemble coarse breadcrumbs, then set aside in a large bowl.
  3. Transfer the frozen chicken chunks to a food processor and pulse several times (you might have to scrape the bottom a few times) until coarsely ground. Add the ginger, sake, sesame oil, fish sauce, and white pepper and run the processor until the mixture is even and smoothly ground. Transfer to the bowl with the chicken knuckles and mix everything together evenly.
  4. Rub your hands with a bit of oil, then shape the mixture into 15 small meatballs. My tool for cooking the roundest and most evenly browned meatballs is—a takoyaki pan (the specially designed pan with large holes that makes Takoyaki, Japanese octopus balls)! I place each meatball into each hole on the takoyaki pan brushed with a bit of oil, then I cook them over medium heat, turning each meatball frequently with a wooden skewer, until evenly dark brown and cooked through, about 10 minutes. If you don’t have a takoyaki pan, you can do this in a skillet, or bake the meatballs on a sheet pan under the broiler for 12 to 14 minutes.
  5. Generously douse the meatballs with sesame sauce, then smother again with My Ultimate Chile Oil. Dust with more finely ground Sichuan peppercorns.
  1. Sesame Sauce
  2. In either a blender or a food processor, combine the tahini, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, vinegar, sugar, and ¼ cup of crushed ice. Blend until the mixture is smooth, then add 2 more tablespoons of the crushed ice at a time and continue to blend for 30 seconds, adding ice until the sauce is the texture of loose mayonnaise. Set aside (or refrigerate for up to 3 days). Just before using, mix in the cilantro or scallions.

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