Lion’s Head, or shi zi tou is a rustic home cooked Chinese dish that evokes tasty memories for my husband. Over the years I’ve heard about his mom’s Lion’s Head, and I’ve also heard my husband’s numerous requests for her to to make it for him. So when my mother-in-law suggested we make it together, I was excited to learn. The pork meatball and cabbage dish is slow cooked in a pot. The meatballs are meant to represent a lion, and the shredded greens its mane.
As with most Chinese dishes, there are many variations depending on the region, and Lion’s Head is no different. As we stood side by side in the kitchen, I learned that the recipe we were making came from my mother-in-law’s mom. Her mom and dad used to make Lion’s Head for Chinese New Year, and it was one of her dad’s favorite dishes.
My husband’s grandparents may be gone from this earth, but the legacy of their Lion’s Head recipe remains.
1 large head Napa cabbage
2 pounds ground pork (do not use the lean variety)
2 tablespoons green onions, minced
2 tablespoons fresh ginger, minced, plus 2 slices
1/2 cup drained and minced water chestnuts (optional) Chestnuts were not a part of the original family recipe, but it adds a nice texture.
2 tablespoons shallots, minced
6 tablespoons soy sauce
2 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (can be found in Asian grocery stores)
1 teaspoon white or black pepper
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt, plus 1 teaspoon
1/2 cup chicken stock, plus 1 cup
2 tablespoons corn starch
2 tablespoons water
3 cups peanut or vegetable oil for frying
1. In a medium bowl, add pork, green onions, ginger, water chestnuts (optional), shallots, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, pepper, sugar, salt, egg and 1/2 cup chicken stock.
2. Combine thoroughly using a utensil to mix in one direction, whether it’s counter or clockwise. This is an important step. My mother-in-law explained that it helps with the meat’s texture. This technique will help ensure that your meatballs will not break when cooked.
3. Mix corn starch and water together to form a paste. Add paste to pork mixture. Combine, stirring in one direction.
4. Take about a half cup of the pork mixture in your hands. It should be about the size of a tennis ball.
5. This is when it gets fun. The secret to a good Lion’s Head meatball is to toss it back and forth, like a ball. Like stirring the meat in one direction, this technique helps create a dense ball. My mother-in-law recommends tossing between 20-30 times. Some people toss it up to 100 times. It’s up to you. Below is a video of meatball tossing so you can get a feel for it. It’s pretty fun!
6. Set meatballs aside on a plate as each is formed. You should have approximately 15 meatballs.
7. Heat 3 cups of peanut or vegetable oil in a medium saucepan over high heat. Drop a bead of water in the oil. When it dances on the surface of the oil, it’s ready. Add meatballs to oil, but do not overcrowd. You will need to cook the meatballs in batches. Decrease heat to medium and cook for approximately 3 minutes, then turn with tongs and cook for 3 minutes on the opposite side. Meatballs should look browned. Transfer cooked meatballs to a plate and repeat process.
8. Trim off the root end (white parts) of the Napa cabbage and place in the bottom of a large heavy saucepan. Add remaining 1 cup chicken stock and 1 teaspoon salt to cabbage.
9. Place cooked meatballs on top of cabbage and arrange. Heat over high heat to bring to a boil.
10. While meatball and cabbage mixture is coming to a boil, quarter the green parts of the Napa cabbage leaves lengthwise and then cut them again crosswise into thirds. Place leaves on top of meatballs. Cover and reduce heat to medium. Simmer for approximately 1 hour. The cabbage will release a lot of moisture and the meatballs will continue to cook in a soup-like mixture.
11. After simmering for 1 hour, add 2 slices of fresh ginger to the pot. Cover and continue to cook for another 1 or 2 hours. The longer they simmer, the more tender the meatball.
12. Serve Lion’s Head in a bowl with soupy mixture, cabbage and meatballs.