红烧狮子头 (Red Braised Lions Head) – Don’t worry, the lion is not on the ingredient list; it is a jumbo size meatball dish from Huai Yang cuisine. It got the name from its shape, which resembles the head of Chinese guardian lions.
This is a recipe that features the most tender, fluffy, and delicate meatballs. You can just scoop the meat by using a spoon. As it melts in your mouth, all the flavors just burst out. The braising liquid is so savory and goes perfectly over the white rice. Chinese New Year is coming soon so I hope you can give this a try as it’s a celebration dish.
1. Choose Your Pork
The best cut to make these meatballs is a skinless pork belly. You can also go with pork shoulder. Don’t use tenderloin though as it is too lean.
2. Dice the pork belly
The biggest challenge in this recipe is to dice the pork belly into soybean size. No, I am not kidding. As one of the four major cuisines in Eastern China, Huaiyang cuisine is known for its outstanding knife skills.
You can take a short-cut by using ground pork, but I want to talk about the authentic and high-end style because it represents the culinary traditions in Jiangsu Province. Dicing the meat into soybean size will give you the most tender meatball while still retaining the meat texture. If you use the ground pork that is ground by machine, it is too fine and the meatballs will likely come out a bit mussy and will not give you the same experience. You can freeze the pork belly and partially defrost it so it will be a lot easier to work with. Also, sharpen your cleaver before you do this.
Once you dice them all, use the cleaver to roughly run over the meat a couple of minutes. This is not to grind the meat, rather it is to make sure all the pork bits stick together tightly.
Short-cut tip: However, I understand not everybody wants to put that much time and effort into one dish, so I will give you a couple of shopping tips: Don’t just randomly grab any ground pork from the shelf; pick a best cut as if you would dice it by hand. Ask the staff to grind it freshly for you and make sure they only let the pork go through the machine once. Because I know in the USA, most of the supermarkets will feed the meat into the grinder 2-3 times which causes the meat to turn into a sticky paste which is not what you want for this recipe.
3. Season the Pork and Shape the Meatballs
Put the diced pork into a big mixing bowl. Continue by adding 100 grams of baby bamboo shoot, 1 tbsp of soy sauce, 1 tbsp of oyster sauce, 1/2 tsp of salt, 1 tsp of sugar, and some freshly ground white pepper to taste. Mix it well and set it aside.
Next, we will make aromatics water. In a blender, add 1 piece of scallion (diced), 1/2 tbsp of diced ginger, 2 cloves of garlic (diced), 1/2 tsp of Sichuan peppercorns, and 1/2 cup of water; blend it into a puree. Let it go through a sieve to get rid of any stubborn bits.
Mix the aromatic water with 5 tbsp of cornstarch.
Pour the cornstarch mixture into the pork in batches. Stir it within 1 direction until all the liquid is absorbed. Then, pour in a little more and keep stirring. Once all the starch mixture is gone, continue to whisk the meat within one direction for another 4-5 minutes to develop the texture.
Evenly divide the meat into 7 batches. It is such an odd number. That is because my clay pot only fits 7 meatballs. To shape them, you just toss the meat in between your hands with a lot of force. Try to get rid of any air pockets. I love the real deal size meatballs – almost as big as my fist. Do not make it too small, otherwise, it will dry out quickly when we brown it. One of the derivatives of this dish is to stuff a boiled quail egg inside; I am didn’t do that, but it is definitely something you can think about if are trying to be creative. Or, if you like cheese, you can stuff that in too. It is not Chinese style but who cares, it is delicious. Set the meatballs aside.
4. Make the Braising Liquid
There are two variations of Lion’s Head Meatballs: The first one is “清炖狮子头”. It is braised in clear broth and served with napa cabbage. What we are making today is the red braised style, what we call “红烧狮子头”. The braising liquid is super flavorful and it often involves caramelizing sugar to give the broth a significant red color.
I used a clay pot to braised the meatballs but you can use other types of cookware. Add 1.5 tbsp of oil, 2 tbsp of sugar. Turn the heat to low and stir the sugar constantly until the sugar turns into a caramel color.
Toss in the following aromatics: 1/2 tbsp of Sichuan peppercorns, 1/2 of a cinnamon stick, 1/2 of a star anise, 2 pieces of bay leaves, 2 scallions (cut into 2 inch-long strips), 5-6 slices of ginger, 4-5 cloves of slightly crushed and peeled garlic. Stir for a couple of minutes or until fragrant.
Pour in 2.5 cups of water. Bring this to a boil. Then add 2.5 tbsp of soy sauce, 1 tsp of dark soy sauce, and 1/4 cup of Chinese cooking. You can give it a taste to adjust the flavor. The meatballs are seasoned already, so we want the soup to be a little less salty compared to your normal taste. The liquid will reduce after the braising and by that time, the flavor will be just perfect. Move the clay pot off the stove and we will brown our meatballs. Remove the pot off the stove for now.
5. Brown and Braise the Meatballs
The traditional way is to deep fry them; you just heat the oil to 380°F and add the meatballs in. I use a big silicone spoon to help to keep the shape. Make sure the spoon is heat proof, otherwise it might melt in the oil. Deep fry it on medium heat for 3-5 minutes. We are not trying to cook it through, we just want to get a nice golden-brown color on the outside which will add so much flavor to the broth.
You can also use an air fryer. Set it at 400°F for about 5 minutes or until the outside is nice and brown.
An air fryer will save you so much oil, but not everybody has one, so, you can pan fry it but the shape will not be perfectly round anymore; you will get several flat surfaces and the color may not be even but it is completely fine in taste.
By the way, make sure you have the braising liquid ready on the side. These meatballs look beautifully cooked on the outside but the inside is still raw so you have to transfer them into the braising liquid as soon as you are done browning, otherwise, they might crack and the juice will leak out which ruins the texture.
Ok, put the clay pot back on the stove. Bring this to a boil and turn the heat to the lowest. Let it simmer for 1 hour.
One of the standards for a lion’s head meatball is that you should not be able to pick it up with a pair of chopsticks because it is super tender and will just break apart. Instead, you have to transfer it with a rounded silicone utensil.
Serve the meatballs with some blanched baby bok choy and white rice. Enjoy!