Meatballs Aren't Quite The Italian Invention We Thought They Were

Though there are many dishes Americans associate with Italian cuisine, few are more iconic than the meatball. Even if spaghetti with meatballs is a uniquely American creation (they don't even generally eat meat with pasta in Italy), meatballs by themselves are definitely a classic Italian dish. Italian meatballs are different in that they're smaller than we're used to and served on their own, but they're still recognizably meatballs. It's easy to see why they've stood the test of time. Those savory, juicy meatballs must've been a hit when they were first invented in Italy, huh?

Except they almost certainly weren't created in Italy at all. Not even close, in fact. While the origins of the meatball are largely shrouded in mystery and we don't know anything for sure, the most likely theory is that meatballs, like human civilization generally, came through the Middle East and evolved from a dish we still know today: kofta.

Meatballs likely originally came from Persia

Again, we don't know this for sure — there's no meatball chain of ironclad historical evidence — but it seems extremely likely that meatballs originated with kofta in Persia. Kofta is the oldest meatball we know existed, and the chain of movement looks pretty obvious from there, with trade routes moving them through Arabic cultures into North Africa and Greece, and from there into the Mediterranean regions of Spain and Italy. This theory is further bolstered by the fact that kofta certainly made its way to other places; it's a dish where you can find regional variations under slightly different names (like "kefta") today as far east as India and as far north as Eastern Europe.

It's important to note that kofta, while technically a type of meatball, isn't much like either the Italian version (polpette) or the Italian-American version (the kind you're likely familiar with). Kofta typically combines meat with rice, lentils, or the like, while the meatballs Americans are most familiar with involve egg, minced onion, bread crumbs, or butter (or all of the above).

Polpette are still Italian, even if meatballs as a concept aren't

Wherever they came from, meatballs are one of the world's most universal dishes for a reason. Even if Swedish meatballs aren't technically Swedish because those meatballs came from kofta the same way polpette did, that doesn't make Swedish meatballs as a dish anything less than a Swedish creation.

The history of cuisine is one of dishes making their way across thousands of miles as each culture that encounters them puts its own unique spin on them. Think about pasta: Noodles likely made their way to Italy from China originally (not through Marco Polo, though), but the Italian pasta-making process is still distinct from the Chinese noodle-making one. Pasta isn't suddenly not Italian just because the core concept of a noodle isn't from Italy originally.

The same is true of meatballs. Even if meat shaped in a ball isn't something created by Italians, polpette is a distinctly Italian creation.