tsukune teriyaki meatballs

Tsukune (teriyaki meatballs)

9 July 2013

Can you be in love with a recipe? I am in love with this one.

My friend Edie came to visit Ohio and brought her cute laugh, her charming freckles (Edie and I prove that Asians can have freckles), her marvelously relaxing presence, and this insanely great recipe for teriyaki meatballs. We made two pounds for ourselves on Saturday, four pounds for a swooning crowd on Sunday, and my mother-in-law who had been at both meals said she could eat these every day for the rest of her life. I’m pining for more right now.

What are these savory gems? If you’re Japanese, you already know tsukune (pronounced soo-koo-nay): ground meat, often chicken, sometimes cooked yakitori-style on a skewer. The killer step in this recipe is the lush dip the tsukune take in teriyaki sauce, soaking in all the flavor with their heat. The sauce is simple – soy sauce, mirin and sugar – and utterly transformational.

Edie’s recipe is adapted from Harumi Kurihara, a cookbook writer and television personality who has been called the Martha Stewart of Japan. Edie plucked the recipe from Everyday Harumi, a collection of easy home recipes (which, yay, is at my local library!).

This recipe does it all. It’s easy everyday cooking – makes a perfect rice bowl with a few vegetables – but interesting enough for company. It makes fantastic leftovers, and if I ever manage to have any leftover, I want to stash some in the freezer for quick heat-up meals.

The meat in the recipe is flexible. Harumi uses half beef, half pork, which is how Edie normally makes it. But we made a ground turkey version for our party and loved those too – even Edie, who doesn’t usually like ground turkey.

Edie substitutes napa cabbage (briefly wilted with salt to draw out water) for Harumi’s minced celery. Finely minced zucchini would work too.

cutting napa cabbage

Toss the cabbage with a good pinch of salt to draw out some of the water.

napa cabbage onion

Here’s the half beef, half pork mix. Plus an egg, a bit of flour (for gluten-free, try potato starch or another binding flour), salt, pepper, and onion.

ground beef pork

Tsukune means kneaded with hand. So just get in there and squish. Wise Edie took off her wedding ring first.

mixing meat

For the sauce you can use sake (Japanese rice wine, pronounced SAH-kay) if you don’t have mirin (sweet rice wine) – just add a bit more sugar. Glossy and salty-sweet.

teriyaki sauce

The meatballs get pan-fried, so you’ll want them slightly flattened.

forming meatballs

Fry until brown on each side, with no pink around edges. They look like little hamburger patties.

cooking meatballs

Warm meatballs soak up the sauce for extra savory juiciness.

dipping meatballs in sauce

A little cooked veg completes a perfect rice bowl meal.

meatball rice bowl

And the next day…mixing four pounds of ground turkey took some skill.

mixing turkey meatballs

My lovely sister-in-law Michelle volunteered for fry duty. With four kids, she knows how to multitask, and she manned two pans at once with characteristic ease.

frying meatballs double duty

Dipped meatballs on a serving platter. Probably would have looked prettier if I’d sprinkled chopped herbs on top, but I was in a hurry to get to the eating part.

turkey tsukune

As long as flavors don’t clash, I like an eclectic spread. My friend Jenny got me a huge basil plant, so I made a caprese salad to celebrate summer. Plus quinoa with sweet potatoes, broccoli salad, a giant leafy salad and my friend Jojo’s lemony, tomatoey shrimp with feta. And then I didn’t have to cook for a couple days after, which is always my post-party reward.

turkey tsukune buffet

Tsukune (Teriyaki Meatballs)
The key to these meatballs is a lush dip in teriyaki sauce while still warm. Easy everyday cooking – a few vegetables complete a perfect rice bowl – that is interesting enough for company too. Adapted from Everyday Harumi, by Harumi Kurihara, aka the Martha Stewart of Japan.

Meatball ingredients

  • 1/3 cup diced onion (about 1/2 small onion)
  • 1 cup diced napa cabbage
  • 1 pound ground meat (half beef and half pork, or ground turkey)
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt (1/2 teaspoon if using table salt)
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 large egg
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil or cilantro (optional)
  • Oil for pan frying

Sauce ingredients

  • 1/2 cup soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup mirin (or 1/2 cup sake plus 3 tablespoons sugar)
  • 1/4 cup sugar


  1. Put chopped cabbage in a strainer, sprinkle with good pinch of salt and stir. The salt will bring out some of the water in the cabbage, so place the strainer in the sink or over a plate.
  2. Combine soy sauce, mirin and sugar in a small pan and slowly bring to a boil. Turn the heat down low and simmer for about 20 minutes, until it has thickened. Set aside.
  3. Gently squeeze the cabbage, which should be a bit limp.
  4. In a mixing bowl, add ground meat, onion, cabbage, egg, flour, salt and pepper and knead with your hand to combine well. Mince basil or cilantro, if using, and add to the mixture at the end so it retains its color.
  5. Shape meat into slightly flattened balls about 2 1/2 inches in diameter. Heat skillet over medium and add oil. Tilt pan to make sure the cooking surface is well coated with oil, adding more if necessary. Add tsukune to pan, placing them close together but not touching, and cook until well browned on both sides with no visible pink. Add additional oil between batches if necessary (likely if you are using ground turkey). If you are unsure about doneness, cut one meatball in half to check.
  6. Put some teriyaki sauce in a small bowl. Roll cooked meatballs in the teriyaki sauce while still warm and place on platter to serve. Sprinkle more chopped herbs over to make it pretty.

Serves four.


  • You can probably get away with half the amount of sauce for this recipe, but unused teriyaki sauce keeps for weeks in the refrigerator and is good on everything.
  • Gluten-free version: substitute another binding agent for the flour (eg potato starch).
  • Instead of cabbage, Harumi uses celery, minced fine (use two stalks, or about 1 cup). Or you could use finely minced zucchini.
  • Fresh minced ginger would be a great add and is found in many tsukune recipes.
  • Harumi sprinkles meatballs with with shichimi togarashi and serves with lemon wedges on the side.
  • You can also keep cooked meatballs in freezer for an easy heat-up dinner.

Here’s the link to a printable version.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Slammie 10 July 2013 at 10:50 am

Sounds delicious! Nope, my mom, most of her siblings, her mom and myself have freckles. Ugh!


Slammie 10 July 2013 at 10:51 am

I don’t remember you having freckles but it’s been 20 something years at least and memory has long since left…


mm 11 July 2013 at 9:28 am

These look great, cg. I love the sweet-saltiness of teriyaki, and it’s always popular with my family. Thanks, too, for the link to Everyday Harumi – I have too many cookbooks, but this one is very tempting!


jamie @ green beans & grapefruit 16 July 2013 at 7:49 am

This just made me laugh because I used to watch Harumi Kurihara weekly when KCET would broadcast her show- which was so oddly adapted for English speaking audiences that it was truly one of my favorite 30 minutes of television. The meatballs look sensational!


cg 18 July 2013 at 10:29 pm

hi jamie – that is so funny…i’d love to check out a harumi show, she is a japanese sensation!


venus 16 July 2013 at 11:23 am

Okay — we made these last week. They were divine and so easy. Used celery instead of the cabbage, put them on a bed of rice, and sang your praises as we enjoyed every bite. Thanks again for another wonderful recipe!


cg 18 July 2013 at 10:28 pm

yay venus, awesome that you made them. thanks for the celery endorsement too, i love our community test kitchen here! πŸ™‚


Sheli 18 July 2013 at 9:43 pm

This recipe looks great and I would love to try it, but the link for a printable version of this recipe “cannot be found”. I just printed your fresh ginger ale recipe with no problems, so I don’t know what the hitch is. Please help – these meatballs look awesome!


cg 18 July 2013 at 10:06 pm

hi sheli – thanks for the heads up on the link – not sure why it’s not working right now and can’t troubleshoot from my phone. but this is the link to the printable version:


and you can always get there from the recipes page as well.

thanks! hope this works for you.


Sheli 18 July 2013 at 10:23 pm

Thanks so much for your quick response to my comment. I just printed out the recipe from the link you gave me and I cannot wait to try making them this weekend.

Again, many thanks!



cg 18 July 2013 at 10:26 pm

no problem, hope you like the meatballs! πŸ™‚


Helen 20 November 2014 at 11:53 am

This is the solution to my dinner dilemma today! Cannot wait to have them!


Joanna 1 January 2016 at 7:44 pm

Just made these – loved them!


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