Lion's Head - Meatballs that speak Chinese (Shanghainese)

by Shirl

Don’t worry; this blog is still about food, and I’m not veering off topic. And before you even pick up the phone and call the wildlife protection people, let me assure you no protected wildlife is ever consumed here. Rather, Lion’s Head is a simple country dish made with meat and vegetables; yes, that’s it. But what’s with the name? The idea is that - okay, a little imagination would help here - a large meatball presented on top of a bed of braised cabbage, vaguely, resembles the head and mane of a lion.

meatballs with napa cabbage

Lion’s Head is a very popular dish in modern day Shanghai cuisine, even though it traces its origin to Yangzhou in eastern China. The meatballs in Lion’s Head are made of pork and usually shaped rather large, up to 4 inches or 10 centimeters in diameter. They are braised along with napa cabbage, in soy sauce and Shao-Hsing wine, which give the resulting dish a rich dark and flavorful sauce. You may not have heard of Shao-Hsing wine. Named after a city south of Shanghai, Shao-Hsing wine is made with rice and wheat, has a distinct flavor and is often used in Chinese cooking. If you are thinking you can’t cook Lion’s Head because you won’t be able find this wine, you’ll be pleased to hear that many have suggested a dry Sherry wine is indeed a good substitute for it.

Lion’s Head is a slow-cooked dish*, not one to be rushed because it takes time for the pork and cabbage to develop flavor. When you have an afternoon free, put some music on, pour yourself a glass of wine; put yourself at ease and then get started in the kitchen. Once the pot is in the oven, you now have a couple of hours to relax, take a nap, read a book. By dinner time, you’ll be rewarded with some very tender, satisfying meat and vegetables, the old-fashioned way. Oh, don’t forget that beautiful “gravy” – if I were you, I would serve myself a good heap of steamed rice to complement that.

For this recipe, I like to use pork butt. It’s actually the shoulder part of the pig, a cut which has enough fat and a lot of flavor, perfect for slow-cooking. If you like your meatballs to have a bit of a crunch, you can mix in some chopped water chestnuts to the pork. Personally, I like them without. As mentioned before, if you cannot find Shao-Hsing wine, you can use a good dry sherry instead. This recipe would serve 2 – 3 people as a one-pot meal.

If you are into slow-cooked meals, may I suggest Braised Short Ribs? If you are looking to complete a Chinese meal, try Chicken Mushroom Rice and Sweet Mini Dumplings Soup.

Lion’s Head Meatballs

(Serves 2 - 3)

1 Pound Ground Pork Butt (Shoulder)*
1 Tablespoon Soy Sauce
1 Tablespoon Shao-Hsing Wine or dry Sherry
1 Teaspoon Sugar
1 Teaspoon of Freshly Grated Ginger
A few Water Chestnuts, finely chopped (Optional)
All-purpose Flour for dredging meatballs
2 Tablespoons of Oil
Napa Cabbage, 1 small head, cut into 2-inch strips
1 Clove of Garlic, minced
1½ Cup Chicken Broth
Cooked Rice (Optional)
Freshly Ground Black Pepper

1. Preheat oven at 300F.

2. Combine in a small bowl soy sauce, wine, sugar, ginger, a good pinch of salt, a couple rounds of ground black pepper. Add the combined seasoning and water chestnuts, if using, to pork meat. Mix well and shape meat into balls of 2 – 3 inches in diameter. Roll the meatballs in flour to give it a light coating.


3. Heat a large oven-safe cooking pot on medium-high heat. Add oil. When oil is hot but not smoking, add meatballs. Let them cook for a couple of minutes before turning them over. It takes a few minutes to finish browning all sides of meatballs. Then remove them and set aside.

4. Continue with the same pot on medium-high heat; add napa cabbage. Season with a pinch of salt. Sauté the vegetable for two or three minutes. Add garlic and sauté for another minute.

5. Add chicken broth to Napa cabbage. Let the broth comes to a boil, then add back the meatballs. Nestle the meatballs among the Napa cabbage. Cover the pot and place in preheated oven. Cook for 2 hours. Remove from oven. Taste to see if you need more salt or pepper. Serve with rice if desired.


*Although Lion’s Head is best made slowly, you can make this dish in a shorter amount of time by using a different cut of pork. I’d suggest center loin or pork loin, which is leaner and more tender. But be sure to reduce oven cooking time to 30 minutes only. You can choose to simmer the pot on stove at medium-low heat instead. Give it a try!

From our partner: LO+JUNE

From our partner: LO+JUNE
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