Lion’s head meatballs, also known as “shī zi tóu” in Chinese, are a beloved dinner classic. These meatballs get their name from their large size and round shape, which resembles a lion’s head. When simmered in a savory and saucy broth with cabbage, the combination creates an abstract shape that resembles a lion’s mane. This dish is often served during the holidays for its auspicious symbolism, but it’s easy enough to enjoy as a casual weeknight dinner.
These meatballs pack bold flavors into their large size. With just a few simple ingredients, ground pork is transformed into something truly delicious. This recipe calls for shallow frying the meatballs to help seal in all the flavors and juices, making them tender and juicy. Once cooked, the meatballs are coated in a savory sauce, adding another layer of texture and flavor.
What Are Water Chestnuts?
Water chestnuts are a common ingredient in Chinese cuisine. Despite their name, water chestnuts are actually a vegetable and not a nut. They have a thin, dark brown skin and a white interior and are usually peeled before use. They can be easily found in cans at many supermarkets and Asian grocery stores.
While water chestnuts have a relatively bland flavor, they are prized for their crunchy texture. Biting into a freshwater chestnut is similar to biting into a crisp apple, and the texture remains the same even after being cooked at high heat. If you can’t find water chestnuts, you can omit them from this recipe.
Use Cornstarch to Thicken the Sauce
A cornstarch slurry is made by mixing cornstarch with a small amount of water to form a thin and smooth paste. This slurry is used as a thickening agent in cooking and can help prevent clumping when adding cornstarch to hot liquids.
To make a cornstarch slurry, dissolve the cornstarch in a small amount of cold water, stirring until it is fully combined. In this recipe, it thickens the saucy broth that is served with the meatballs.
There are many variations of seasoning, sauces, and vegetables that can be used in Chinese lion’s head meatballs. This dish is a common dinner staple, so experiment with different ingredients to find the combination that you like best.
If you don’t have cabbage on hand, you can use napa cabbage or bok choy as a substitute. Flavorings like black vinegar, Chinese 5-spice powder, and minced garlic are good additions.
More Meatball Magic
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Assemble the meatballs:
In a large bowl, combine the ground pork, water chestnuts, breadcrumbs, egg, ginger, soy sauce, Shaoxing rice wine, sesame oil, sugar, white pepper, cornstarch, and salt. Mix until just combined and no pockets of breadcrumbs remain.
Divide the meatball filling into 10 portions and form into large, 3-inch balls.
Fry the meatballs:
Add about 2 inches of vegetable oil to a medium, deep skillet or Dutch oven (about 10 inches in diameter). Heat the oil over medium-high heat to 350°F.
With a large spoon or spider, gently add half the meatballs without overcrowding your pan. Fry on each side until golden brown, about 4 minutes. They should register at least 160°F on an instant-read probe thermometer inserted in the center.
Remove the meatballs and set them aside on a plate lined with paper towels. Bring the oil back up to temperature and fry the remaining meatballs.
Make the soupy glaze:
To a medium pot, add the chicken stock, dark soy sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, white pepper, and cabbage. Stir and cook over medium heat until boiling, about 8 minutes.
Combine the cornstarch and water in a small bowl and mix to combine. Add the cornstarch slurry to the broth and stir until thickened, about 3 minutes.
Add the meatballs to the pot and gently toss until covered in the saucy broth. Serve.
Leftovers can be stored for up to 3 days in an airtight container. To reheat, microwave them with 1 to 2 tablespoons of water for about 1 minute or on the stove for about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the sauce is loose and the meatballs are hot.
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