Enjoy the classic Chinese pork meatballs in a healthier way, without compromising on flavor.
Chinese pork meatballs are also called lion’s head (狮子头, shi zi tou). They feature tender, moist, and light meatballs with a savory taste. This dish is a staple food for my family, because it’s quite easy to cook in big batches and is so comforting to enjoy any time. Eating the savory meatballs with rice is as addictive as eating a burger. Juicy and flavorful meat and starch are the best combo in the world.
You’ll find quite a few versions of Lion’s Head in China. One popular rendition in northern China is braised meatballs. The cooking method for those is quite close to the one in this recipe. But instead of steaming, those meatballs are braised in a soy-sauce-based liquid after browning. Another type is meatballs cooked in chicken broth. They’re usually served by themselves instead of over rice.
Today I’ll introduce a third type – steamed lion’s head. This recipe was passed down from my grandma. She used to make a huge batch of these every two weeks. After cooking them, she’d reserve a small amount to serve to guests who might be visiting her house. She would freeze the rest and give them away to family members, including my parents. These meatballs are my favorite and are even better than the ones from the restaurant. They are extremely fluffy and moist and are as tender as the pork in a slow-cooked Bolognese sauce.
The secrets to creating super fluffy meatballs are:
- Mix water into the meat to make a very tender patty
- Add plenty of breadcrumbs
- Add plenty of water chestnuts
The truth is, you will need to add so many breadcrumbs and chestnuts, that the size of the patty doubles. The water chestnuts add a really refreshing and crisp mouthfeel, so the meatballs will taste extra light.
My mom once told me, making the meatballs tender was not the original intention of adding so many other ingredients to the pork. It’s because pork was in short supply when she was a kid, so her parents needed to find a way to make these meatballs more filling with limited ingredients. Thus, the moist and tender texture of the meatballs was just a nice side effect of living poor. Even now, my family still enjoys cooking with this recipe. It tastes like home.
I really love this steamed version myself. Besides its superior taste and texture, it’s also a lot healthier than the average meatball. By browning and steaming the meatballs, a lot of fat is rendered out, so the finished dish will end up with fewer calories. The recipe may seem a bit time consuming, but it’s actually very easy to prepare. The active cooking time in the kitchen is only 30 minutes.
The meatballs are one of my favorite lunch items, too. They freeze well and taste as great after reheating. Stuff one of these into your lunchbox with steamed rice and some greens, and you’ll make all of your colleagues jealous when you heat it up in the office microwave.
If you like this recipe, also check out the Mom’s best series, which includes a delicious list of recipes that handed down from my grandma.
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Chinese Lion’s Head Pork Meatballs (狮子头)
- 1 pound (500 grams) ground pork (lean fat ratio 7:3)
- 4 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (or Japanese sake)
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 3 teaspoons salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 teaspoon ginger , grated
- 1/2 cup scallion , minced (or green onion)
- 1 tablespoons cornstarch
- 12-15 water chestnuts , finely chopped (generate about 1 cup)
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup (100 grams) panko (Japanese style breadcrumb)
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
- Add ground pork into a large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons water. Mix well with a spatula until water is fully incorporated.
- Add Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, salt, sugar, grated ginger, cornstarch, and scallion. Mix well.
- Add chestnuts and eggs. Mix a few times.
- Add panko. Mix well. Add sesame oil, mix until it forms a soft paste.
- Heat peanut oil in a nonstick skillet over medium heat until warm.
- Use bare hands to scoop about 1/3 cup of the paste and shape it into a meatball (*see footnote 1). The meatball should be a bit runny, barely able to hold its shape (so the finished meatballs will be tender and juicy). If the meatballs cannot hold their shape, add a bit more panko and mix again. If the meatballs are still a bit tough, blend in more water and mix well, 1 tablespoon at a time, until the paste turns soft.
- Carefully place 3 to 4 meatballs in the skillet and make sure to leave enough space to flip them. When the bottom side is just set, carefully roll the ball with a spatula to cook the other sides. Continue to do this until all sides are set and browned (*see footnote 2). Transfer to a plate. Continue to brown the rest of the meatballs.
- Add water to a steamer and place the plate of meatballs on the steaming rack. (*see footnote 3)
- Heat the steamer over medium high heat, covered, until the water begins to boil. Turn to medium heat. Cook covered until the meatballs are cooked through, in 40 minutes.
- Cook the second batch by using the same method. After cooking the first batch, check the water level and add more if it runs too low.
- Serve warm over steamed rice as a main.
Storage and reheat
- Store the meatballs in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 days or in the freezer for up to 2 months. After steaming, the meatballs will render some fat and liquid. Drizzle it on the meatballs before storage, to keep the them tender and moist.
- The best way to reheat the meatballs is by steaming, the same method used to cook them. The meatballs will be heat up evenly and still be moist inside.
- Alternatively, you can use the microwave. Make sure the container has some liquid (leftover grease or 1 teaspoon water) inside. Please a loose lid on top and heat it up in the microwave.
- This is a bit messy, but I find using bare hands to shape the meatballs is easier than doing so when wearing plastic gloves.
- It can be difficult to keep the meatballs in shape, because the meat mixture is quite runny. You need to handle them gently, so the balls won’t break apart. You can cook the top and bottom sides first, like cooking a very thick burger patty. Then you can use two spatulas to let the meatball stand, to cook the edges. The meatballs won’t look very pretty, but will still taste great.
- Unless you are using a very big pot, you’ll probably need to cook the meatballs in two batches. It’s fine to stack the meatballs.