31 August 2011

Lion's head meatballs (shi-zi tou)

Well the weather's pretty shit isn't it? What a poor rump of summer this is turning out to be. It's not even September yet. Lion's head meatballs will ease our transition from stunted summer to nascent autumn: a cold weather dish, both burnished by frying pan and moistened by the braising pot.

I took a basic recipe from Robert Delfs's The Good Food of Szechuan and gave it some SDON tweaking. He suggests using a massive amount of soy sauce, as well as additional salt, so I've toned this down.

The ingredients are familiar, their configuration is not. Lion's head meatballs are wonderful beasts - globes of meat flavoured principally with the familiar triumvirate of garlic, ginger and spring onions, flecked with chilli, browned nicely in a pan and then given a relaxing braise to emerge damp and wonderful for eating with rice and greens. The name reflects their shape - when on their traditional bed of greens the meat spheres allegedly look like lion's heads against their manes of green leaf.

  • one kilo minced beef/pork
  • one head garlic
  • same amount of ginger
  • five spring onions
  • soy sauce
  • cornflour
  • sugar
  • Shaoxing wine
  • lots of greens (cabbage, spring greens etc.)

In a big bowl mix well: the meat (I suggest using a mixture of beef and pork - I used minced beef with chopped bacon as that was what was to hand but you could use anything really); the garlic from a good-sized head chopped finely; a similar amount of ginger and five spring onions similarly prepared; dried or fresh chilli according to preference (although I don't think this dish should be too hot); and two tablespoons of soy sauce mixed with one of cornflour. Form into large spheres.

Coat the spheres in a mixture made of four tablespoons of cornflour mixed with three of light soy sauce.

Fry them until dark colours and light caramelisation occurs.

Add water to almost cover the meatballs and slosh in four tablespoons of Shaoxing wine and a pinch of sugar. Possibly also a jot more chilli. That's all you need to lubricate the meatballs and provide a nice sauce. The lions' heads express meat juice as they simmer away, enriching the sauce. They also express quite a lot of fat (or at least mine did - I was using standard quality supermarket mince which tends to be a touch greasy) so it's a good idea to spend a minute or two spooning away any excess. The meatballs need about thirty minutes on a lowish head. Give them a gentle turn.

Meantime sweat your greens.

Serve with plain rice. Oh my days, these are very nice indeed. Slightly hot, slightly sweet and highly savoury, this is good comfort food, and pretty easy to boot.

I don't think you need to worry too much about sticking to a recipe - it seems like this is a dish with as many versions as there are cooks and Google reveals hundreds of varying pictures. Mrs. Chiang's Szechwan Cookbook also uses quite a few different ingredients so perhaps I'll try her version next. Now get cooking!


  1. Wow, they look and sound amazing - I love the balance between pungent, spicy and sour (and, obviously, beef). And I have some Welsh black beef mince in the freezer...aces.

  2. These look good. I made meatballs at the weekend but haven't blogged them yet. Coming soon...

  3. These balls look tasty. I may have to cook them to counter our lass's swedish balls.

  4. Mmm I love the sound of these. Soy Sauce and spring onions do something magical to transform beef.

  5. Thanks for all the comments.

    I would definitely recommend making them, and many of the ingredients may be to hand in the kitchen. I'm going to make them again soon with some more tweaks!

  6. Lion's head - sadly all too rarely seen in Blighty so good on you for knocking some up.

    BTW - posh versions of this dish include brown crab meat to supplement the pork in the meatball mix.

  7. Cheers, they are wicked! Keen to make some more so if I'm feeling flush will do crab/pork ones.

    Also seem to be some nice looking ones that are more poached in broth.

  8. Saw you posted on my own Lion's Head on reddit, so hi! These look different and fantastic at the same time! I have a feeling yours would edge mine out, at the least for those with drier tastes! I'll have to compare!

  9. Not at all Brian, yours looks well tasty! I want to make these again as I liked them so much, I think I'll try and do a different recipe.