Seriously great meatballs. Not even lion.
Every cuisine has some kind of meatball recipe, for good reason: unless you are vegan, everyone loves meatballs. And I think Lion’s Head Meatballs are some of the best the world has to offer. They’re so named because the Napa cabbage floating in the soup forms the flowing mane of the meatball lion head, which especially makes sense if you’ve seen Chinese paintings of lions or lion dance puppets. Sometimes, though I think the name was created by old school Chinese trolls who knew people would just assume the recipe calls for actual lion. The good news is, it’s just pork. Oink oink!
Like many foods, I convinced myself I didn’t like these meatballs before I even tasted them because they were different from what my high school self knew a meatball to be: beef, in tomato sauce, on spaghetti. Why would you ever have meatballs in a clear soup, with cabbage? Or even with soy sauce gravy?
But one day, I raided my dad’s box of buffet takeout and put one in my mouth without thinking about it too much. By this point, I’d tasted extremely, inarguably authentic Swedish meatballs from IKEA, so another meatball covered in brown gravy wasn’t too out of the box for me.
“These are really good,” I said, surprised, before grabbing a second one.
He laughed at me, but I noticed that whenever he came back with a box from that buffet, there were always meatballs inside. I ate them cold, I ate them warm, I ate them so fast that my dad would come back to his takeout box ten minutes after setting it down to find only a puddle of brown gravy in the corner. And when I made them for the first time, the year I moved to NYC, I sent photos to my parents.
Wow, they texted. Can you FedEx us some?
I haven’t yet been able to ship these to my parents, but I’ve made them for parties (you can bake them, you can Crock Pot them, and individual servings look so cute!) as well as for dinner at home. I’ve tested out several different versions of the recipe – my fiance loves both the clear and the soy sauce versions – and have tweaked them to make one that I think combines the best parts of all of them, with a couple tips to make a simple recipe even easier.
Food is love in my family – you know you’re welcome if we overwhelm you with yummy things to eat – and I think I’m pretty well equipped to carry that tradition on to the next generation when the time comes. And even if they turn out as picky as me, I have a feeling these meatballs will do the trick.
Lion’s Head Meatballs
- 1 (4-ounce) block firm tofu, cut into 1/4-inch slices
- 6 scallions, divided
- 1 5” knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
- 1 lb ground pork
- 1/2 lb pork belly
- 1/2 cup diced water chestnuts
- 1 egg, beaten
- 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- 2 teaspoons Shaoxing wine
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3 teaspoons minced garlic (3 medium cloves), divided
- 3/4 teaspoon ground white pepper, divided
- 3 teaspoons soy sauce, divided
- 2 tsps sesame oil
- 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon flavor neutral (canola, vegetable, etc) oil, divided
- 1 1/2 cups homemade chicken stock or low-sodium broth
- 5 heads baby bok choy, halved
- 6 Napa cabbage leaves from 1 head, cut into 2-inch pieces, thick stalk and leafy parts separated
- Cooked white rice, for serving
Place tofu slices in a heatproof bowl, and pour boiling water on top to cover. Let stand for 30 seconds. Drain and transfer tofu to a paper towel-lined plate. The tofu should be firm at this point, so if necessary, wrap slices in paper towels and squeeze to drain water completely.
Transfer tofu slices to a bowl. Using a fork, mash tofu into fine pieces. Set aside.
Process 5 scallions and ginger in a blender or food processor until you have about 3 tbsp of pulp or liquid. Alternately, you can finely chop the scallions and ginger until pulverized. Set aside 2/3 and leave the rest in the processor.
- Add 1/3 of the ground pork and pork belly to the processor and process with the ginger scallion pulp until smooth. This looks pretty gross (total pink slime), but will make the texture of your meatballs light and creamy*. Remove and put in large work bowl, then repeat with the next third of the ground pork, pork belly, and ginger scallion pulp. Repeat with the last third of each. If you don’t have a processor, finely chop each third of the pork with the ginger scallion pulp and juice.
In your work bowl, combine the pork and ginger scallion mixture with mashed tofu, diced water chestnuts, beaten egg, sugar, Shaoxing wine, salt, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and 2 tsps sesame oil, and gently mix until well combined. To check your seasoning, microwave a small pinch of the mixture for about 10-20 seconds until cooked and adjust according to taste.
Set out the flour in a small bowl. Scoop a small handful of the meatball mixture (whichever size meatball you prefer – I like making both giant and small meatballs) onto the flour. Heap the meatball with flour and remove from bowl, shaking excess flour off – the meatball and your hands should have an even coating of flour, which will help keep things from sticking. Repeat until all meatballs have been formed.
Heat oil at medium high heat in a large pot or Dutch oven. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, pan-fry the meatballs, allowing them to brown and firm up on the bottom before turning, about 3 minutes. Flip meatballs and brown other side, about 3 minutes. Transfer meatballs to a large paper towel-lined plate.
Add bok choy and thick stem parts of the Napa cabbage to the existing oil in the pain (about 1 tbsp). Season with salt and cook for 3 minutes. Arrange meatballs in the pot in a single layer on top of vegetables. Add chicken broth, remaining 1/4 teaspoon white pepper, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon minced garlic, and bring to a simmer. Cover and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until meatballs are cooked through and tender, about 20 minutes.
- Stir leafy parts of the Napa cabbage into the pot. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes longer.
To serve, bring the pot to the table or plate meatballs in bowls. Sprinkle the remaining sliced scallions on top and serve with white rice.