They've been around for ages and can be found across numerous cultures. , but they've only earned their English name in recent times.
As food historians can tell, the term "meatball" is fairly new, most likely created in melting pot America to refer to the classic Italian-American version so often tucked into gooey subs, slathered in red sauce and spooned over noodles, or bobbing in soup.
"I can tell you that the idea is a lot older than the word," said food historian Anne Mendelson. "Before about the early 1920s, you would have had a hard time finding 'meatballs' in an American cookbook, and the first entries were 'Swedish meatballs.' It took another 20-some years for 'spaghetti and meatballs' to start regularly showing up in cookbooks."
But balls of meat are at least as old as written recipes, with references to the idea dating back to Apicius, a collection of Roman recipes regarded as the first cookbook, said Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in California.
"The real obsession comes in the Middle Ages," he said. "They have an obsession with pounding meat," which he says was a way to make tough and less desirable cuts of meat more palatable.
The world of meatballs is broad and ill-defined. "The only thing that makes this a category of analysis is that [the meat] sticks together," Albala said. "It would defy logic, but I guess it has to have meat. You wouldn't call a falafel a meatball, or a doughnut a meatball."
Ready to brush up on your meatball basics? Here's a primer to 10 from around the globe:
Polpette: Roughly translated from Italian into something pounded, this meatball is native to southern Italy and typically made with a mix of ground meat, spices, lemon zest and breadcrumbs, said Ken Albala, a food historian at the University of the Pacific in California. It's the ancestor to the American meatball, minus the sauce and spaghetti.
Kibbeh: Native to the Middle East, the mix of this fried or baked torpedo-shaped meatball varies by country, but typically consists of a bulgur and meat shell with a stuffing of ground lamb, beef or chicken.
Albondigas: Spanish for meatball, these bite-sized balls are native to Spain, but show up in Latin cultures around the world where spices, sauces and meats differ from its cousin the polpette.
Lions head: The Chinese have hundreds of meatball variations, Albala said. Loosely resembling a lion's head, this large Shanghai meatball comes in white and red (with soy sauce) and usually contains pork, shrimp and cornstarch. It typically is stewed with vegetables that include cabbage, which is supposed to represent the lion's imposing mane.
Kotbulle: A 1960s party classic, the Swedish meatball is made with beef, cream and soaked white bread, Albala said. It is smaller and denser than other varieties and typically is roasted or fried, then served as an appetizer or over noodles.
Klopse: Named for the former German city of Konigsberg (now Russian Kaliningrad), this German meatball has a base of ground beef, veal, pork, onions, breadcrumbs and eggs, and is poached, then served with a white cream sauce.Comment on this story
Frikadeller: Similar to the Swedish version, this Danish meatball starts round but is flattened a bit when pan-fried.
Kofta: The generic name used for meatballs from India to the Middle East and North Africa. Kofta typically are spicy and often contain eggs, nuts and cheese, and also can come in seafood or vegetarian versions.
Keftedes: Greek meatballs that usually contain lamb, parsley, thyme and mustard seeds.
Faggot: It means a bundle of sticks, but ask for faggots in England and you'll get baked rounds of pork, offal, breadcrumbs, spices and onions.