Monday, August 3, 2015

These lion heads make me roar (sorry)

An iconic dish of the entire Jiangsu area, each town seems to have its own take on how to season and present these giant, juicy meatballs. Some places like Yangzhou steam the meatballs in individual jars and season them gently, while others add crabmeat to the pork, or toss chicken feet into the stock for extra richness, and so on. It’s really hard to go wrong with these, though, so if you love them as much as I do, play around with the recipe once you get the hang of it, adding whatever makes you happy.

I did just that here. Fried green onions add a lovely toasty layer to the dish and excellent depth to the sauce, turning into black strips that melt on the tongue. I like bok choy as the starring vegetable, too, rather than the usual napa cabbage, as it remains assertively green and slightly tannic against all of those savory notes.
Mung bean sheets

And finally, the mung bean sheets are a personal touch. Instead of cellophane noodles, which admittedly are always good here, I prefer the silky touch of the fenpi: These have a delightful texture of silk crossed with gummi bears, plus they soak up all of the flavors around them. I’m hooked.

This may look like a long recipe, but actually it’s quite simple. It is broken down into steps that can be done at a leisurely pace. A food processor makes the pork a snap to whip up. The only real hands-on work consists of frying the meatballs, but even that can be done while you attend to other things. Let's hear it for technology.

Red-cooked lion heads
Hóngshāo shīzitóu 紅燒獅子頭
Serves 3
Seasoned water

Seasoned water:
¼ cup chopped green onions
2 tablespoons chopped ginger
¼ cup water

Fried green onions:
1 bunch green onions, trimmed
½ cup peanut or vegetable oil

Fried green onions
12 ounces (or so) good quality ground pork (see Tips)
1 large egg
1 tablespoon Shaoxing rice wine
1½ teaspoons regular soy sauce
¼ teaspoon sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1½ teaspoons cornstarch

Frying up the lion heads
¼ cup green onion mingyou (above)
1 quart unsalted chicken stock
6 thin slices ginger
1 tablespoon regular soy sauce
1 teaspoon rock sugar

The rest:
8 ounces bok choy or napa cabbage, trimmed
1 package mung bean sheets (fenpi)
Boiling water, as needed

1. First make the fried green onions: Chop the green onions into 1-inch lengths and put them in a wok with the oil. Fry these together over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are browned and toasty. Strain out the onions and place them in the bottom of a medium (6- to 8-cup) sandpot or covered casserole. Save ¼ cup of the green onion mingyou for Step 3 and reserve the rest for something else.

2. Next, prepare the seasoned water: Place the green onions, ginger, and water in a food processor equipped with a metal blade and whir these together until the ginger is pulverized; scrape down the sides a couple of times to get everything liquefied.

Easy & fast in a processor
3. Add all of the meatball ingredients, including the seasoned water, to the processor and beat them together for a minute or so until the mixture is light and fluffy. Set a wok over medium-high heat and swirl in the mingyou. Scoop out about 1/6 of the pork mixture form it into a ball as you place it in the hot oil. Do this again with 2 more meatballs, so that you are frying half of the mixture at a time. Brown the meatballs all over until they have a crunchy crust, and then place them in the sandpot. Repeat with the rest of the pork mixture in order to have 6 meatballs.

4. Add all of the sauce ingredients to the sandpot, cover, and bring the pot to a boil. Reduce the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook the lion heads for about 2 hours with the lid slightly ajar so that steam can escape.

5. While the sandpot is cooking away, cut the bok choy into thin wedges (about 4 to 6 wedges per medium head), being sure to clean out any grit at the bottom of the leaves, or thinly shred the napa cabbage. Place the mung bean sheets in a wide pan and cover with boiling water. Bring the pan to a boil and then simmer the fenpi until it is translucent and soft, but still chewy. If it hasn’t fallen apart into strips, drain the sheets and cut them up with kitchen shears into bite-sized pieces. Add the vegetables and cooked fenpi to the sandpot and gently mix things around so that the vegetables and fenpi are submerged; add boiling water only if absolutely necessary. Simmer this for around 15 minutes with the lid on so that the vegetables barely cook through and the sheets absorb the rich flavors of the stock. Serve hot. Use tongs to serve the fenpi, as it is pretty slippery.
The seasoned water ingredients


This recipe traditionally calls for a good piece of skinless pork shank that is hand-chopped. You can certainly do that, if you prefer: Cut the chilled meat into small cubes and first chop it with a Chinese knife to form a paste, and then beat it with the back of the knife to lighten up the mixture. Scrape this into a work bowl and then beat in the rest of the meatball with your hand, working in only one direction. I have to say, though, that the processor works pretty well here.

Mung bean sheets are fantastic here, but they are a personal addition to this classic dish. I adore their slippery, chewy texture, as well as the way they suck up all of the sauces layered flavors. Eating these noodle-like creations is a sensuous experience. If you can’t find them, use cellophane noodles (fensi), or simply serve the sandpot with some steamed rice.

This recipe can be easily multiplied for more people: Just use a large sandpot. Fancy parties should count on one meatball per person, as there will be other things on the table. For a home meal, though, offer two to each diner.

If you like this dish soupier, either cut out the fenpi or add another couple of cups of stock to the sandpot and season to taste.


  1. I really like the idea of the fenpi here: it's so good in the summer as a simple 'noodle' dish, at room temp with just soy, sesame oil and chopped green onion, followed by watermelon (lots of it) and cold beer. Had it often when stuck in Beijing in hot hot July.

    I make lion's heads with chopped black mushroom in the meatballs, and cloud ear and snow ear in the broth (that has extra soy sauce for more brown-ness) for crunch. I will try your recipe soon; it sounds really yummy, especially with the fenpi mouthfeel. Thank you.

    1. Love the idea of all those fungi in the mix. Sounds divine... think I'll try that next time, and also loved the vision of this as a good summer dish. Thanks!

  2. Hi Madame Huang! Sorry to post this here, but I am having a pressing issue!

    I am headed to San Francisco next Wednesday, and would like to know your suggestion for the best Chinese restaurant in San Francisco. Last time I went to SF, I walked into a random DIm Sum restaurant and honestly was a little underwhelmed. This time I'd like to defer to the opinion of a true expert on this subject!

    Also - do you know of any truly authentic Tibetan restaurants in the Bay Area? I see two in Berkeley, but they don't seem very legit.


    1. Hey there. Welcome to the Bay Area! I don't know of any good Himalayan restaurants around here of any type. Checked with some Tibetan folks, and they just rolled their eyes. Like just about any of my favorite cuisines, you pretty much have to wrangle an invitation for a home-cooked meal to enjoy the best. I wish I could give you a better answer, but we've been uniformly bummed by all the Tibetan, Nepalese, and Bhutanese places we've tried... too much Americanization going on, or the menu heads into Han Chinese or Indian territory. If you discover something great, please let me know!

  3. Hello Carolyn! I have been studying this for weeks and cannot wait to try this recipe... One quick ? - what does one do with the seasoned water? Thank you!!!

    1. My mistake. It's added to the meatball mixture to season the pork and make it lighter. Sorry about that! I've edited the recipe accordingly. Thanks for such a great question!