Kitchn Love Letters

Tender, Savory Chinese Meatballs Are My Happy Place

updated Mar 17, 2021
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close up of the lion head meatballs in a white pot with leeks floating
Credit: Christine Gallary

My definition of comfort food has changed a lot since last March. Confined at home with just my small family, I initially turned to bread and carbs, melted cheese, and countless snacks for solace. But as time went on, the toll of not seeing friends and family weighed on me more and more and I sought comfort in my childhood food memories. Some of my most vivid memories are sitting down at my Chinese grandmother’s table, eating multi-course dinners, all with three generations of family members present. Her homey dishes became what I craved most: I wanted soup, steamed fish, congee, soy sauce, ginger.

My grandmother cooked dinner for at least eight people almost every night of the week: four to five different dishes, always accompanied by rice and soup. I still don’t know how she managed the sheer variety, but she was a skilled, savvy cook, knowing the best combination of dishes to put together so they were always hot and fresh when it was time come together to eat. Her daily trips to Oakland Chinatown meant that she only bought what was fresh and was familiar with all the vendors and stores.

There are lots of dishes I wish I could have learned from her before she passed, but one of my favorites was a steamed pork patty: ground pork cooked with water chestnuts, dried fish, and white pepper. I saw a recipe for lion’s head meatballs in the cookbook Phoenix Claws and Jade Trees that seemed to echo a lot of the flavors, so I planned a dinner around it one night when I wanted to lose myself in a cooking project.

Credit: Christine Gallary

What Are Lion’s Head Meatballs?

Lion’s head meatballs are popular in the Shanghai region of China and get their name from the fact that the large pork meatballs, which can be the size of a softball or even larger, resemble a lion’s head. They can be cooked in a light broth or red-cooked in a sweetened dark soy sauce. The recipe in the book was the red version and was finished with baby bok choy, which appealed to me since it was an easy way to add vegetables to dinner. The recipe also included water chestnuts, which drew me in since my grandmother’s pork patties also used these refreshing little tubers for some sweet crunch.

How to Make These Lion’s Head Meatballs

The method for making these meatballs is quite different from Italian or American versions. You start by blending ginger and scallions with water, then you strain the mixture and mix the liquid with the ground pork to add flavor and keep the meat moist. Next, you stir in water chestnuts, tapioca starch, and egg white, then form the pork into the large meatballs.

Credit: Christine Gallary

Instead of pan frying, these meatballs are deep-fried before they’re braised. The tender mixture is very soft and delicate, so they’d likely fall apart in a skillet. I used deep-frying as an opportunity to help maintain the seasoning on my wok, and used the leftover oil for stir-fried green beans and fried chicken later on, so in my book it really wasn’t much of a waste of oil at all.

The fried meatballs are braised in a mixture of chicken stock (I flavored mine with ginger and scallions to keep things tasting more Chinese), Shaoxing cooking wine, dark soy sauce, garlic, and sugar. Everything bubbles away until the meatballs are cooked through, and finally some baby bok choy goes in just to wilt at the end.

Credit: Christine Gallary

The finished dish was steamy comfort in a pot: tender, savory meatballs in a lightly sweetened soy sauce and vivid baby bok choy, perfect for serving over steamed rice to soak up every drop of sauce. I happily ate the leftovers for a tasty lunch by simmering bean thread noodles in the broth the next day.

The one thing I would change? Ginger has an enzyme called zingibain, which is a tenderizer, but can also make ground meat a little mushy. These meatballs had fabulous flavor, but the texture could have been better. There’s apparently an easy fix for that, though: Just heat up the scallion-ginger liquid first to 158ºF and it’ll deactivate the enzyme. I can’t wait to try these lion’s head meatballs again with this additional step.

Putting the pot of lion’s head meatballs on our table made me feel a bit like I was eating at my grandmother’s house again, with family chatting loudly around me while my grandmother smiled from the head of the table. I don’t know if my grandmother would have liked these meatballs, but I know that she would have been secretly proud that I was trying to recreate some of the flavors that she lovingly served us night after night.