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Your Favorite Chinese Lion Head Recipe

Written by Luisa Davis on . Posted in food

I was in China a couple of months ago, and being the foodie that I am, I just couldn’t pass up any opportunity to try something new — but the one that really got my attention was the Chinese meatball.

Although I’d had meatballs in the past, this was nothing like I’d ever experienced before. I just couldn’t get enough of these soft, tender and light meatballs. Beware to all who enter here: one taste, and you might find yourself uncontrollably craving more delicious meatballs.

We’re going to be talking specifically about a classic Chinese dish called the lions head dish. No, I’m not talking about an actual lion head here! Chinese lion head dish is also commonly referred to as Chinese pork meatballs.

In this post, I am going to tell you the secrets of the best Chinese lion head recipe. But first, let’s take a look at what the lion head dish entails.

What is The Chinese Lion Head Dish?

Chinese Lion head, also known as Chinese pork meatballs, originated in the Haiyang cuisine and the eastern part of China. It basically consists of huge pork meatballs sauced with vegetables (Napa vegetable to be specific).

There are two main varieties of Chinese pork meatballs: they are the white and red varieties. The plain or white type is usually stewed with Napa cabbage, while the red variety is cooked with bamboo shoots and tofu derivates. The red variety gets its red color from the addition of soy sauce.

The red variety involves a process called red cooking, popularly known by many other terms, such as Chinese stewing, red stew and red braising. Red cooking is a slow-braising Chinese cooking technique that adds red color to an already-prepared food.

This cooking technique is also of two types: Hongshao, which is usually done in less than 20 minutes and does not involve the use of too much water, and Lu, which is a much more prolonged process where the food must be dipped in a cooking liquid.

The white variation is definitely easier to make and way faster, so if you want to make something quick and tasty that won’t suck up your energy, try this method. But if you want something fancy and tastier (after all, plain is never tastier) and you don’t mind the extra work, then try the red variety.

Chopped meat composes the main part of this Chinese dish, specifically meat with a very fine texture and high in fat content. You can use less fatty meat if you’d like a healthier meal, though.

This dish originally came from Yangzhou and Zhenjiang and probably some part of Huai’an. The white or plain variety is more common in Yangzhou while the red variety is more common in Zhenjiang. The dish is also well recognized in the Shanghai cuisine, all thanks to the overwhelming number of migrants in the 19th to 20th centuries.

Now as to the mystery behind the name: why lion head?

Easy. In the Lion head, the shape of the meatball carefully placed on the Napa cabbage somewhat looks like the head of the Chinese guardian lion. If you want to see the resemblance, then place the meatballs on the Napa cabbage as tradition dictates, and there will be a guardian lion’s head sitting before you.

How To Cook Pork Meatballs Like a Boss

In order to get the best taste of the Chinese pork meatball, you need to, first of all, know how to properly cook pork meatballs. Cooking pork meatballs can be very tricky, but don’t worry; follow the steps below, and you will do just fine.

To cook pork meatballs, the following basic ingredients are required:

  • 1-pound of ground pork (depends on the quantity you want)
  • 1 cup of dry breadcrumbs
  • 2 medium sized eggs
  • 2/3 cups of parsley leaves
  • 1 cup of freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon of salt
  • 1/2 cup of finely-chopped onion
  • 1 teaspoon of pepper (black pepper preferably)
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable oil.

Preparation/method:

  1. Spread the meat out in a bowl with a little salt. Whisk the egg in another bowl until it is well mixed. Add in your parsley leaves, Parmesan cheese, pepper, salt, onion and garlic. Whisk all together. Add the mixture to the pork and mix thoroughly with your hands. Add the breadcrumbs and roll the mixed pork into as many ground pork meatballs as you like.
  2. Heat the vegetable oil in a frying pan and add your meatballs in single layers, spreading them apart. Allow to fry for 3 minutes, making sure that they are brown all around. When they are tender enough, use your spoon to remove from the pan.

Another way is to add the meatballs to tomato sauce and allow to cook for a little while over very low heat. When they’re done, allow to cool for a little while.

Lions Head Meatball Recipe

Now you are no longer a novice at preparing meatballs. So, let’s look at how to prepare lion’s head meatball. The preparation method is very similar to the above method of preparing pork meatballs.

The major ingredients for preparing the Chinese lion head dish are as follows:

  • 1 pound of lean ground pork or beef (depends on whichever kind of meat you want to use)
  • 1 large head of Napa Cabbage
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 cup of minced green onion
  • 3 teaspoons of Kosher salt
  • 3 tablespoons of Shaoxing wine
  • ½ cup of Scallions
  • 3 tablespoon of Soy sauce
  • 4 tablespoons of water
  • 50 grams of panko breadcrumbs (Japanese style)
  • ½ teaspoon of white ground pepper
  • Vegetable oil
  • 4 ounces of water chestnut
  • 2 tablespoon of premium soy sauce
  • 1 teaspoon of grated ginger
  • 1 tablespoon of cornflower
  • 1 cup of chicken broth

Preparation/method:

1. In a large bowl, add the ground pork with a little amount of water and mix thoroughly.

2. Add ginger, ginger pepper, soy sauce, scallions, Shaoxing wine and cornflower. Mix thoroughly.

3. Add the eggs and cornstarch and mix very well.

4. Add the panko breadcrumbs and mix until it forms a paste-like mixture.

Note: for the breadcrumbs, you can choose to mix them together with the other ingredients. Another way is to use your hands to form the meatballs by rolling and pressing them into the breadcrumbs.

5. After thoroughly and carefully mixing all meatballs ingredients together, use your hand to form 1-2 inches (or bigger depending on how big you want them) meatballs and set aside.

6. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Test the heat by placing a few drops of water on the skillet. Wait until all water has evaporated and pour in the vegetable oil.

7. Carefully and gently lower your meatballs (about 3 to 4 to avoid overcrowding) into the pan, ensuring that there is enough space to flip them. Allow to fry and flip occasionally until they are cooked all around.

8. Transfer to a plate and continue the same process for the others and reduce the heat to medium-low when the oil becomes too hot.

9. Chop off the head of the Napa cabbage and wash carefully with water and set aside.

10. In a large pot, heat the remaining oil over medium heat and add the Napa cabbage. Allow to cook until wilted.

11. Pour the chicken broth over your cabbage. Add pepper, salt and soy sauce. Allow to cook. Gently place your meatballs on top of the cabbage. Cover and simmer for about 10-15 minutes.

12. Serve immediately with sticky white rice and enjoy.

Note: If you do not wish to eat or consume the meatballs immediately and choose to store them, this is how you store the meatballs:

Place meatballs in an airtight container and store in the fridge for up 4 days. You can also store them in the freezer for more than two months. To keep the meatballs tender and moist during storage, simply drizzle on top the fat and liquid that was released during steaming.

When you are ready to eat them, simply reheat the meatballs by steaming them using the same method described above. This will allow the meatballs to heat up evenly and still be moist on the inside.

Sometimes you just want to use the microwave. To use the microwave, ensure the container has some amount of water or sauce in it, then simply place the lid on top loosely and heat the meatballs.

Other Cool Ways Of Preparing The Chinese Lion Head Dish

There are also other ways of preparing or enjoying these amazing meatballs. These slight variations make them even more awesome.

Make a lion head soup by adding your already-prepared pork meatballs to a boiling Napa cabbage. Then, add seasoning like salt and pepper to taste.

You can also add vermicelli, a noodle similar to spaghetti. The shape and size of vermicelli vary, as it is slightly thicker than Italian spaghetti but slightly thinner than American spaghetti. Basically, vermicelli refers to various types of thin noodles in China. Vermicelli is first soaked in warm water for about 5 minutes, then drained and added to the Napa cabbage in the pot and finally allowed to simmer for about ten minutes.

For a slow-cooked dream, try the lions head stew. It’s similar in preparation to the soup, but instead of boiling the cabbage, you fry it alongside your already-prepared meatballs. This stew goes really well with sticky white rice. You can also try it out with noodles.

The Chinese pork meatball is one of the best meatballs I have had in a while. From the perfect combination of ingredients to its unique style of preparation, this is something really worth trying out. So what are you waiting for? Stop salivating, get out there, get your ingredients and prepare to experience the amazing Chinese lion head dish.

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Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis

Luisa Davis is a frelance writer and foodie based in Portland, California. Though raised on her mother's homestyle Italian cooking, she has spent most of the last five years traveling and immersing herself in other countries' cuisines. Her work have been published in various publications, both online and offline.

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