Why It Works
- Mashed tofu guarantees moist and tender meatballs.
- Two kinds of pork, including fatty ground pork, add moisture to the meatballs.
- Minced water chestnuts deliver crunch in each bite.
With a grand and exotic-sounding name, you'd think the Chinese meatballs known 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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
Once formed, the meatballs are first seared until golden.
Then they're simmered in broth until cooked through.
Once that's done, you'll be feasting on a Shanghai classic.
1 (4-ounce) block firm tofu, cut into 1/4-inch slices
8 ounces ground pork, such as pork shoulder
4 ounces ground or minced fatty pork, such as fresh pork belly
1/4 cup drained canned water chestnuts, diced
1 teaspoon minced peeled ginger
2 scallions, white parts finely minced and green parts thinly sliced, divided
1 egg yolk
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 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided
3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon canola, vegetable, or peanut 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
2 (1.75-ounce) packs dried vermicelli noodles
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. Press gently on the tofu with paper towels to dry thoroughly.
Transfer tofu slices to a bowl. Using a fork, mash tofu into fine pieces. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine ground pork, fatty ground pork, mashed tofu, diced water chestnuts, minced ginger, minced scallion whites, egg yolk, sugar, Shaoxing wine, salt, 2 teaspoons minced garlic, 1/2 teaspoon white pepper powder, 2 teaspoons soy sauce, and 1 teaspoon cornstarch, and gently mix until well combined, being careful not to over-mix. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Working with wet hands, form small handfuls of meatball mixture into balls; you should have about 5 to 6 meatballs.
Heat 3 tablespoons oil over medium-high heat in a non-stick pan. Working in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan, pan-fry the meatballs until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Flip meatballs and brown other side, about 3 minutes. Transfer meatballs to a large paper towel-lined plate.
In a bowl, combine chicken broth, remaining 1/4 teaspoon white pepper, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch, and 1 teaspoon minced garlic. Mix well and set aside.
In a large pot or Dutch oven, heat remaining 1 teaspoon oil over medium heat. Add bok choy and thick stem parts of Napa cabbage. Season with salt and cook for 3 minutes. Arrange meatballs in the pot in a single layer, pour chicken broth mixture in, and bring to a simmer. Cover and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until meatballs are cooked through, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, soak vermicelli noodles in warm water until softened, about 5 minutes. Drain well and set aside.
Stir vermicelli noodles and leafy parts of Napa cabbage into pot. Cover and simmer for 10 minutes longer.
To serve, bring pot to the table or carefully transfer everything to a large serving bowl. Sprinkle remaining sliced green part of scallion on top and serve with white rice.
Large soup pot or Dutch oven
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 33g||42%|
|Saturated Fat 10g||48%|
|Total Carbohydrate 28g||10%|
|Dietary Fiber 4g||13%|
|Total Sugars 3g|
|Vitamin C 40mg||199%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|