Citizens – a meatball is perhaps the very definition of homestyle cooking (though we here in America inevitably associate them with Italian cooking). This is unfortunate, because while Italian-American meatballs and sauce are truly of wondrous flavor and savor, the Chinese have their own version that is well worthy of your time!
Texture is equally important to flavor in this dish – please follow the steps outlined to achieve proper texture (springy, bouncy and tender) without deviation!
Lion’s Head or stewed meatball is a dish from the Huaiyang cuisine of eastern China, consisting of large pork meatballs stewed with vegetables.
There are two varieties: white (or plain), and red (红烧, cooked with soy sauce). The plain variety is usually stewed or steamed with napa cabbage. The red variety can be stewed with cabbage or cooked with bamboo shoots and tofu derivatives. The minced meat, so rich in fat, is more likely to bring better texture, while an addition of chopped water chestnut also works.
The name “lion’s head”, derives from the shape of the meatball which is supposed to resemble the head of the Chinese guardian lion, specifically. The use of a frilly cooked cabbage leaf become the “mane”.
The dish originated in Yangzhou and Zhenjiang, to a lesser degree, Huai’an. The plain variety is more common in Yangzhou and the red variety is more common in Zhenjiang. The dish became a part of Shanghai cuisine with the influx of migrants in the 19th and early 20th century.
The dish has been well known since the late Qing dynasty, as the recipe extracted from Xu Ke’s Qing bai lei chao (清稗類鈔) attests:
(Lion’s head, is a pork meatball, its shape just as its name implies. The proportion of fat to lean pork is fifty-fifty, chop up them, then mix them with egg whites so that the mixture can coagulate easily. The shrimp meat or crab powder is an optional ingredient to mix. Put napa cabbage or bamboo shoots on the bottom of a clay pot, pour a little water and dissolve the salt in it. Make the meatballs as big as possible, put them in, then put leaves above the meatballs and put the lid on the pot. Place the pot in a wok filled with salt water, to avoid cracking in this way, cook over a gentle heat. stoke enough firewood at intervals, when the meat is medium, burn the wok fiercely until the meat is well done.)
Earlier, a salt merchant from Yangzhou called Tong Yuejian (童嶽薦) who lived in the mid-Qing recorded a dish, dadian rouyuan (大㓠肉圓), in his concise cookbook Tiaoding ji (調鼎集):
The significant resemblance between the both dished indicates that the latter may be the prototype of the former, which is acceptable. It is said to date back to Sui dynasty in myth and folklore, but there is no evidence to support such a theory so far.
According to the amazing Fuchsia Dunlop, this dish is one of the “crowning glories of Jiangnan cooking.” Hand-chopping the pork belly is laborious, but the resulting light, fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth meatballs make it worth the extra effort.
A “stewed meatball with crab powder” is considered to be the most traditional version and mine hearkens back to this with the use of ground shrimp. I also use the famous “13-spice powder” from the region to add additional savor to the sauce – you can buy it here.
Dark soy sauce is NOT the usual soy sauce you use – it’s a special version used as much for color as flavor. You can buy my favorite brand here. Yellow rock sugar is a necessity to give the sauce the proper sheen and consistency – you can buy it here (just pound it with a hammer until in bits).
This is a supremely-delectable dish – one that you must rush forth and try with alacrity, my Citizens!
Battle on – The Generalissimo