How to Make Shanghai Lion's Head Meatballs

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Don't let the name of these classic Shanghai-style pork meatballs scare you off: They're easy to make. [Photographs: Shao Z.]

With a grand and exotic-sounding name, you'd think the Chinese meatballs know as "Lion's Heads" would be troublesome to make at home. Fortunately, they're as easy as can be. A Shanghai specialty, Lon's Head meatballs are made of simple, humble ingredients—namely pork and cabbage.

There are two versions of this dish in China. One is served in a rich, dark brown sauce; the other in a lighter broth with vermicelli noodles. Both dishes usually include cabbage, and the meatballs are always big, like a lion's head (with a bushy mane). You can't go wrong with either preparation, but since I'm a huge fan of vermicelli noodles, especially when slow-cooked in chicken broth with cabbage and pork, that's the version I'm sharing here.

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Before I started working on this recipe, I decided to visit Empress Garden, located in Philly's Chinatown, for inspiration. I love how they prepare the dish. The meatballs are juicy and the kitchen doesn't skimp on the vermicelli noodles, and they add Shanghai bok choy along with Napa cabbage.

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Besides the fatty ground pork, they also add tofu to their meatballs, making them extra tender.

To make the meatballs, you want to use a mixture of regular ground pork and fatty ground pork. If you can't find fatty ground pork, you can finely mince or grind a piece of fresh pork belly. You can also omit the fatty ground pork and use regular ground pork, but that will result in a less tender and juicy meatball.

Mixed into the meatballs are both mashed tofu, for moisture, and canned water chestnuts, for crunch. You need to thoroughly dry the tofu before mashing it. To do that, blanch slices of tofu in boiling water for a few seconds, drain, and then pat them dry with paper towels.

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I learned this trick from watching my parents cook—the hot water draws out excess moisture more effectively than patting the tofu dry and faster than pressing it. (This also works with other ingredients that release water during cooking, like mushrooms and squid.)

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When combining the ingredients for the meatballs, be careful not to over-mix, lest they become tight and springy, and be gentle when shaping them as well.

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Once formed, the meatballs are first seared until golden.

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Then they're simmered in broth until cooked through.

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Once that's done, you'll be feasting on a Shanghai classic.

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