Lion's Head Meatballs are known far and wide, being on the menu of most Chinese restaurants, in China and abroad, regardless of the restaurant's regional affliations.
Originally, the dish has its roots in Jiangsu cuisine and this is another fine example of the culinary tradition's subtle sophistication and its insistence on the freshest and choicest ingredients.
For more information on Jiangsu cuisine, visit our Wuxi Pork Spareribs post.
This is a very simple dish to make, but when the dish is this simple, there's nowhere to hide.
I can imagine the most perfect rendition of Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs, having a Jiangsu chef make this with fresh-picked bok choy from the garden, meat from a pig that's just been slaughtered, and crab meat and roe from crabs trapped that morning. He or she will then cook the meatballs in a chicken stock, made from free-range chicken of course, that has been simmering a whole day.
Back to reality, back in reality, I'm afraid we lazypeople, made lazier by our modern "conveniences" unfortunately, have to allow ourselves some shortcuts.
Oh well, since I've never tried the Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs of my fantasy, I think the version that we've come up with here is still pretty darn good, if I may so myself.
And oh, just to be clear, we're calling this dish "Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs" to differentiate this dish from the all-pork genre of lion's head meatballs. It's just a moniker, not an indication of anything else.
Making Them Big Meatballs
The biggest convenience we allowed ourselves is pre-shelled crab. We've used this brand before in another application (Crab Tostada), and while not the crème de la crème, it is good enough in a pinch. ;)
(You can of course use dungeness crabs if you are more industrious and ambitious than me. I weighed that option for a second, before I decided, not this time. Next time, maybe.)
Ground pork, crabmeat, green onions, and some seasonings. That's it!
Look at JS' hands of fury!
Braising Them Lion's Heads
I used a very basic homemade chicken stock for this dish, because I had three carcasses of chicken that were undressed but had nowhere to go except in a pot with water and a piece of crushed ginger.
You can use store-bought chicken stock, but do make sure that the chicken stock is a good brand because in this simple preparation, you will most likely taste any off-flavours (e.g. "tinny", preservatives, etc.).
I've read that this dish is often prepared with crab roe.
Since we weren't using fresh crabs for this dish, we have no access to their roe. We had a roe-like thing sitting in our freezer, some masago, and that is what we used to garnish the lion's heads. You don't have to use masago though and the dish doesn't suffer for lack of it.
As you can see, 2 pounds of pork plus 1 pound of crabmeat make 4 big meatballs!
JS simply plopped them into the simmering chicken stock. We had to turn them over sometime during cooking because they were so big that the stock didn't fully cover them. After a while, the bok choy went in.
I personally think the "Supreme" version of Lion's Head is indeed superior to the all-pork lion's heads, because the crab adds such a different dimension of savoury sweetness to the meatballs.
The taste is, in the words of those old Japanese Iron Chef critics, "subtle yet profound." It is a very light taste, very clean flavours, and yet, quite soul-satisfying.
left: pork-only lion's heads; right: lion's heads with crabmeat
But, as you can see above, we still had some pork meat leftover so JS made standard lion's heads out of them (sans crab). That's the volume of food it takes to feed the family, I guess! ;D
Other Lion's Heads
We've had a version of Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs at Suhang. Like the recipe below, this was served in a light broth, with some more crab meat on top of each head.
urbanspoon: Suhang Restaurant
"Little Cubby Heads"
We've also made an all-pork version, but smaller sized, that we've called "Little Cubby Heads". They were also served in broth.
There are also Lion's Head Meatball dishes that are not in soup but rather braised in a brown sauce. This is what we had at our 8GTCC dinner at Shanghai Village.
Lion's Head Meatball at Shanghai Village
photos by fmed
urbanspoon: Shanghai Village (Vancouver, BC)
For the record, I also liked Chef Ming's Lion's Head Meatball dish at Shanghai Village.
Wikipedia: Lion's Head
Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs with Crabmeat (清燉蟹粉獅子頭)
eatingclub vancouver version
eatingclub JiangZhe dishes
Jade Tower ( 翡翠塔), or Tofu with Aster Indicus (香乾馬蘭頭)
Wuxi Pork Spareribs (無錫排骨)
"Little Cubby Heads", Lion's Head Meatballs (小獅子頭)
Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs with Crabmeat (清燉蟹粉獅子頭)
Suzhou Deep-fried Fish, or Suzhou Smoked Fish (蘇州燻魚)
Supreme Lion's Head Meatballs with Crabmeat (清燉蟹粉獅子頭 )
2 pounds ground pork
1 pound crab meat
8 scallions, white parts only
1 tbsp ginger, minced
1 tbsp Shaoxing wine
1 tsp white pepper
2 tsp salt
8 to 12 cups chicken stock
8 to 12 green bok choy (also called Shanghai bokchoy)
masago or tobiko (optional)
Mix pork, crab meat, and other meatball ingredients together well. Form into big balls (4" to 6" in diameter).
Heat chicken stock in a pot, letting it come to a boil. Gently place your lion's heads into the pot and put on simmer for approximately an hour. Add vegetables towards the end and cook until desired doneness. Garnish lion's heads with masago or tobiko at this time, if using.
Serve and enjoy.