As you might expect from their name, Lion’s Head meatballs are epic in size and savor. Made with shoulder and belly pork, these baseball sized beauties are braised alongside bok choy and served with an extraordinary, crispy chili relish.
Statues of lions have long been used as symbolic guardians of entrances to Chinese buildings. Usually placed either side of gates and doorways, they’re often fearsomely fanged and seriously savage in appearance. For the buildings they adorn, the lions are custodians of peaceful security and good fortune.
And the meatballs? Well, when they’re ringed with a mane of leafy choy, it was thought these alpha meatballs sort of resembled the large, shaggy heads of those big-cat sentries.
It’s certainly a cute origins story, and I like the idea that this dish carries the same positive symbolism to a dining table and all the folk around it.
A roaring success from Shanghai
Often tagged as a signature dish of Shanghai, it’s not just their prodigious proportions that make Lion’s Head meatballs exceptional.
For sure, they do dwarf something like, say, a classic Italian meatball. But beyond their sheer size, there are two other assets that play equally impressive roles in winning these meatballs a slot in the epic category – a mild but super-savory flavor, and a surprisingly unusual texture.
Those two qualities are primarily built on your choice of pork cuts, how they’re ground, and the way you mix them together. That’s the foundation you work up from to introduce more layers of flavor and texture as you prep your Lion’s Heads.
In terms of building flavor, finely chopped garlic, scallions, and ginger are added to the ground pork, along with soy sauce, rice wine, white pepper, and some gently mellowing sugar.
As for texture, roughly chopped water chestnuts add pleasing crunch to the meatballs’ juicily tender but distinctly springy composition.
Now, I know that sounds a bit contradictory – juicily tender and distinctly springy. It’s certainly unusual in that it combines the coarsely ground texture of a good beef burger with the more compacted, slightly chewy ‘bounce’ in some styles of first-class meatloaf. So, we need to look at how that rare combo of opposing textures is achieved.
Choosing the right pork, and prepping it the right way
Renowned for its full, rich flavors, Boston butt – sometimes labelled as pork neck or shoulder – is the first player in our meaty double act. And it needs to be coarsely ground. That’s really important because it’s the coarse grind that accounts for the burger-like element in the texture of your meatballs.
The springiness comes from very finely minced, rindless pork belly. This cut provides the flavor-boosting fattiness that binds the meatballs together and creates their wonderfully satisfying texture.
In our recipe, we’re using four parts Boston butt to three parts belly pork. With that sort of ratio, you’ll have a mix of about 30% fat to 70% lean.
Once they’re prepped, the two types of pork need to be stirred together – rather than blitzed in a food processor. Yep, stirred. I used a stout wooden spoon and dedicated about five minutes to a slow-ish stirring that gradually melded all the meatballs’ ingredients into a fairly chunky, thick-bodied paste. As you stir, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how the mix gradually thickens.
The reason why it thickens is that the steady-but-thorough hand stirring produces a slowly emulsifying effect that binds the meatball’s liquids to the coarsely ground meat and its finely minced fat.
The final bit of prep is very straightforward – chill the mix for a couple of hours in your refrigerator. That’s the last step in ensuring your massive meatballs will stay delightfully spherical as you cook them.
Cooking the Lion’s Head meatballs
Your Lion’s Heads are first going to be fried for a few minutes in pretty hot oil. After that, they’re gently braised for 20 minutes – with the bok choy for half that time – in a garlicky broth infused with garlic, ginger, and the subtlety of Chinese five spice.
That initial frying gives the meatballs their lovely red-tinged golden hue. It also creates a thin, very lightly crisped, protective ‘shell’ that helps to lock in all their flavors as they’re braised.
As they braise in a well-sealed pot, the meatballs are only sitting waist-deep in the broth. That means they’re simmered and steamed at the same time. The result? They stay meltingly tender as they expand slightly, and their flavor-packed fat gets a little more space to flow within them. In a way, they sort of baste themselves internally as they cook.
The fiery, crispy chili relish
Crispy? That’s unusual in a chili relish. In this case, it comes in two guises. The first is a mix of charred, almost dry-fried onion, garlic, and palm sugar. Then there’s dried, red Thai bird’s eye chilies which are darkly toasted in sunflower oil along with roughly chopped, dry roasted peanuts.
Those two parings give this relish its distinctive texture and plenty of caramel-y, smoky heat.
Sichuan peppercorns bring in their unique tingling bite which always sits well beneath the chilies’ instant fire. And running right through this relish there’s the pervasive, high-umami undercurrent of miso. Made from fermented soy beans, miso concentrates the salty savoriness of soy sauce into an intensely rich paste.
Pull all the textures and flavors together and you’ll have a powerfully flavored relish which makes the perfect partner for the relatively mild tastes of the meatballs, choy and their braising broth.
The finishing touch – plain boiled, long-grain rice
Cooked until it’s starting to become slightly sticky, a nutty, long-grain rice like basmati provides a welcome, balancing neutrality to serve alongside your Lion’s Heads and that potent crispy chili relish.
I like mine done to the point where the rice has just enough soft absorbency to soak up the meatballs’ broth – without me either having to reach for a spoon or to drink it from my bowl.
Lion’s Head Meatballs With Crispy Chili Relish
For the meatballs
- 1 pound Boston butt / pork shoulder coarsely ground
- ¾ pound pork belly rind trimmed off, and very finely ground / minced – in 2 tablespoons cold water
- 6 ounces canned water chestnuts thoroughly drained and coarsely chopped into roughish 1/4 inch dice
- 3 scallions white parts very finely chopped, crisp green parts reserved for garnish
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and finely chopped
- 1 heaped teaspoon fresh ginger root finely chopped, skin and all
- 1 free-range egg beaten
- 2 tablespoons cold water to go with the belly pork when it gets finely minced.
- 1 heaped teaspoon caster sugar
- 2 tablespoons rice wine
- 1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon light soy sauce
- 1 heaped teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 teaspoon ground white pepper
- 4 cups sunflower oil for lightly frying the meatballs
For the braising sauce
- 4 scallions medium-sized, roots trimmed off, limp green leaves removed and each one cut into 2 equal halves. That gave me 8 pieces of scallion, each about 4 or so inches long.
- 3 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 1 heaped teaspoon fresh ginger root very finely chopped, skin and all
- 2 tablespoons sunflower oil
- 1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder
- 1 chicken stock cube
- 2 cups boiling water
For the crispy chili relish
- 12 dried red Thai bird’s eye chilies sliced into 1/4-inch disks, seeds and all
- 2 yellow onions medium-sized, peeled and chopped into ¼-inch dice
- 4 cloves garlic peeled and thinly sliced
- 3 ½ ounces whole dry roasted peanuts roughly chopped
- 1 heaped tablespoon ground palm sugar I used the ‘rock’ variety of palm sugar that comes in domes about 2 inches across. Once ground in a pestle and mortar, one of those domes is pretty much equal to a heaped tablespoon of ground palm sugar.
- 1 tablespoon Sichuan peppercorns finely ground
- 1 tablespoon dark miso paste
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
- 1 cup sunflower oil
- 4 tablespoons water
For the bok choy
- 12 fresh bok choy medium-sized, three per person. Trim off any excess stalk but keep the choy whole. The dozen choy I used gave me a total weight of 14 ounces.
For the rice
- 2 cups basmati rice
- 4 cups water
- 1 teaspoon ground sea salt
Making the Lion’s Head meatballs
- I prepped the Boston butt and belly pork in a food processor with a standard blade. The belly pork is really easy to prep – simply blitz it to a paste with 2 tablespoons cold water. When that’s done, turn it into a mixing bowl large enough to hold all the meatballs’ other ingredients.
- For the Boston butt, I cut it into cubes about 1½ inches square and then gave it several watchful ‘pulses’ in the processor. I say watchful because you want your processor to chop the meat into a coarse ground – like that for a good burger.
- Add the coarsely ground pork to your mixing bowl and use a wooden spoon to stir in all the other ingredients except the sunflower oil. At this point the mixture will probably seem far too liquid to form into balls. That’s fine. Keep stirring, stirring, stirring – fairly slowly – until the mix has very obviously thickened. That took me about 5 minutes of steady, thorough stirring.
- Set the mix in your refrigerator and let it chill for two hours. While that’s happening, you’ve got plenty of time to make your crispy chili relish.
Making the crispy chili relish
- Pour the sunflower oil into a measuring jug – 1 cup. Add 1 tablespoon of that oil to a big skillet set on a high heat. As soon as the oil starts smoking, stir in the onions, palm sugar, and salt and drop the heat to medium..
- Stir fry the onions on that medium heat for about 4 minutes. You want the onions to pick up a dark golden color – but not blacken – as they crisp and caramelize in the sugary, sizzling oil.
- Take special care not to let the onions burn – that will turn them unpleasantly bitter and spoil your relish. The key here is to color and crisp the onions but not to let them become overly charred. And bear in mind that the onions are going to fry for a couple more minutes when they’re joined by the chilies and garlic.
- As soon as the onions have turned to a deep gold, add the chilies and garlic. Continue stir frying the mix for another two minutes on medium-high, until the garlic turns a pale gold and the chilies pick up a little darkening char. Good. Now turn the whole lot into a bowl and set it aside.
- Return the skillet to a medium-high heat and add another tablespoon of oil from your measuring jug. Let the oil heat for a minute or so, add the chopped peanuts and stir fry them for 2 minutes until they begin to darken a little. Now add 4 tablespoons water and the miso paste. Give the lot a good stir so that the miso completely dissolves into the bubbling mix.
- Keep the heat on medium-high and stir in the crisped onion, garlic, chillies, and the remaining oil from your measuring jug. Stir well so that all the ingredients are combined. Nearly done.
- When the relish comes back to a lively bubble, turn off the heat and let the relish cool. Once that happens, pour it into a bowl so it’s ready for serving.
Frying the meatballs
- Once your meatball mix has finished chilling, use your hands to form it into four equally sized balls. You want a fairly light touch here so that you compact the balls just enough to hold a nicely rounded shape. Press them together too tightly and they will lose their all-important texture once they’re cooked. Time now for some frying.
- To fry the meatballs, I used an 8-inch wide saucepan. That meant the 4 cups of oil filled the pan to about a ¼ full and would hold a pair of baseball-size meatballs with about an inch of space all round them.
- Using that sort of pan means there will then be enough oil – and space – to fry two meatballs fairly deeply at the same time.
- Add the oil to the pan and set it on a medium-high heat. As soon as the oil starts shimmering – but not smoking – carefully lower in your first two meatballs. Let them sizzle away for 2 minutes and then gently turn them. As they fry, don’t be tempted to move them around the pan, just let them cook for a total of 4 minutes and turn them just once.
- You’re aiming to give the meatballs a mid-golden color all over, but not to cook them right through – that happens when you braise them.
- After their 4 minutes’ frying, use a slotted spoon to remove the meatballs and set them aside on a plate. Repeat the frying process with the next pair.
- The meatballs can now cool and firm up a little while you take a few minutes to make their braising sauce.
Making the braising sauce
- For this, I used a cast-iron Dutch oven that was big enough to hold the four meatballs, the braising sauce, and all the bok choy.
- Set your big pot on a high heat and add the oil. Let it heat until it just begins smoking and then stir in the halved scallions, garlic, and ginger. Make sure everything gets a good coating of the hot oil, then stir fry the lot for 90 seconds and turn off the heat. You want to pull flavor from the scallions, ginger, and garlic – rather than trying to give them any particularly noticeable color.
- As the pot is cooling, add the boiling water to a mixing jug and stir in the stock cube and Chinese five spice. Give the jug a good stir to dissolve the stock cube, then pour the lot into your big pot with the scallions, garlic, and ginger. Stir the pot and turn the heat to medium-high. Now’s a good time to check for saltiness. You might find the stock cube has provided enough salt but add a little more to suit your taste.
Braising the meatballs with the bok choy
- Let your big pot come up to a slowly bubbling simmer, then carefully set your meatballs – and all their plate juices – into the braising sauce so they sit on top of the scallions.
- Drop the heat to low so the sauce is barely simmering, then cover the top with a sheet of silver foil and put the lid on. Use enough foil so that you get a reasonably good seal between the pot and its lid.
- Let the covered pot simmer away gently for ten minutes and then carefully turn the meatballs through 180 degrees. Now add the bok choy around, between, and on top of the turned meatballs. Don’t worry if the choy doesn’t all sit in the sauce, just arrange it so that it’s all fairly evenly spread over and around the meatballs.
- Cover the pot again with the foil, put the lid on and let it simmer slowly on that low heat for another 10 minutes. Done – and ready to serve.
Cooking the rice
- This is easy – just follow the instructions on the pack.
- That usually means covering the rice and salt with water in a saucepan, and letting it come to a boil on a high heat. You then drop the heat to low, cover the pan and let the rice simmer – covered – for maybe 7 minutes. After that, you turn off the heat and let the rice steam in the covered pan for another 5 minutes or so.
- To get a slightly stickier rice – which I prefer for this dish – simply increase the pack’s suggested simmering time by a minute, then let it steam as per the directions on the pack.
Serving your Lion’s Head meatballs
- I think big, warmed soup bowls are the way to go. And I’d certainly recommend serving straight from the big pot at the table. Just before you serve, you might want to do a bit of arranging so that each Lion’s Head gets showcased in the pot with a symbolic mane of choy – why ever not?
- Folks can then help themselves to a meatball, some choy, and a few ladles of the braising sauce.
- I spooned some rice into one side of my generously filled bowl and set a little of the crispy chilli sauce opposite it. Lovely!