While we lived in China—1988-1990—we would occasionally be invited to a family meal by our Chinese friends. One Chinese New Year, Mrs. Wong made us lion’s head meatballs—with her own family’s recipe. Lion’s head meatball is one of the good luck dishes of Chinese New Year’s. The big round meatball is meant to represents the lion guardian spirit that will protect you through the next year.
Looking at the recipes on-line, they do not match what she served us. While most Mrs. Wong’s recipe seemed to match most of the ingredients of those on-line, the one thing that was missing was rice. Mrs. Wong meatballs were studded with grains of rice—she explained that this was the “lion’s mane.”
Note: Most of the on-line recipes explained that the cooked vegetables around the meatballs represented the “mane.”
It has taken me years to figure out how she got that effect. Wife Jan finally figured out that she must have stuck individual grains of rice into the meat. As the meatballs braised, the grains of rice expanded and stuck out of the meat.
One important feature of lion’s head’s meatballs is that they should be big—because, of course, you want a big strong lion to protect you. These meatballs are first deep-fried and then stewed, braised, or steamed—depending on if you are using them in a soup or serving them as a separate dish. This caused a problem for me—because of my wife’s dietary restrictions—since I do not deep fry anything. I decided to broil the meatballs, to get them good and well browned.
Karl’s Lion’s Head Meatballs with Baby Bok Choi (Shanghai Meatballs)
1 lb. pork, ground
1 Tbs. light soy sauce
1 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. shaoxing, rice wine
1 tsp. ginger, grated
3 cloves garlic, grated
3 green onions, minced, separate uses
3 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup green bean starch (sub. corn starch)
1 cup water chestnuts, finely diced
¼± cup rice
2 Tbs. light soy sauce
2 Tbs. dark soy sauce
1 Tbs. sesame oil
½ Tbs. sugar
2 cup chicken broth
2 star anise
5 ginger coins, slices
2 cloves garlic, sliced
10 baby bok choi, cut in half vertically
1. Put the meat in a medium mixing bowl and add the soy sauces, shaoxing, ginger, garlic, and green onions.
Tip: I use a microplane grater on my ginger and garlic. This gives you finely minced bits, without completely crushing all of the cell walls.
Note: Reserve some of the green parts of the green onions as garnish.
2. Thoroughly mix the ingredients.
Tip: Many people use their hands, I found a spatula to be quite effective.
3. Mix the eggs in one at a time.
Note: The mixture will be quite loose at the end of this process.
4. Stir in the starch, one tablespoon at a time.
Note: The meat and starch, between them, will absorb most of the liquid and firm up the mix over time.
5. While the mix is still loose, gently fold in the water chestnuts.
Tip: You do not want to mash the chestnuts into a paste.
6. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes.
Tip: This gives the mix time to firm up.
7. Using a quarter cup measure, form the meat into large meatballs.
Tip: Put a wire rack on a large lipped baking sheet.
Note: If you wish to use the traditional cooking method, put an inch of oil in a skillet and bring it to a high heat. Deep-fry the meatballs until browned on both sides. In either method, it is not important to cook the meatballs all the way through. You only want them to be well browned on the outside.
8. Place the meat balls on the wire rack, so that they do not tough each other.
9. Broil the meatballs—2-3 inches from the heat—until they are well browned on one side.
Tip: About 10 minutes per side.
10. Let the meatballs cool enough to handle.
11. Stick 80-90 grains of rice vertically into each meatball.
Tip: This is a bit tricky. Since I have far fingers, I found using tweezers very useful.
12. Put all of the sauce ingredients into a large lidded pan.
Note: I actually use less of the ingredients—I have boosted the amounts in the recipe above—because Jan complained that there was not enough sauce leftover—after the braising—to put on her noodles. Add more liquid, if necessary.
13. Arrange the meatballs in the pan and bring it to a simmer.
14. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cover the pan.
15. Braise the meatballs for 40-50 minutes.
Tip: Every ten minutes, spoon the sauce over the meatballs.
Note: Keep an eye on the liquid level and add more broth, if necessary.
16. Remove the meatballs from the pan and arrange the bok choi cut side down in the pan.
17. Replace the meatballs over the bok choi and replace the pan’s lid.
18. Continue simmering until the bok choi is cooked through and tender, about another 8-10 minutes.
19. Arrange the bok choi around a serving platter and pile the meatballs on the center.
Tip: You may also serve the dish directly in the pan.
20. Pour any remaining sauce over the meatballs and vegetables.
21. Garnish with the reserved green onion and serve with rice or noodles.