An authentic Lion’s head meatball recipe that uses breadcrumbs, water chestnuts, and aromatics to make super light, fluffy and juicy meatballs that are bursting with 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 at any time. Eating 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, from Shanghai cuisine. They’re usually served by themselves instead of over rice.
Today I’ll introduce a third type – a steamed lion’s head meatball. 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.
How to make pork meatballs extra light
The secrets to creating super fluffy Lion’s head meatballs are:
- Mix water into the meat to make a very tender and moist patty
- Add plenty of breadcrumbs
- Add plenty of water chestnuts
The breadcrumbs create an airy texture. The water chestnuts add a really refreshing and crisp mouthfeel, so the meatballs will taste extra light.
How to make lion’s head meatballs
- Add water, seasonings and aromatics to the ground pork
- Mix in the water chestnuts
- Add eggs and breadcrumbs
- Mix in sesame oil
- Pan fry the meatballs
- Steam the pan fried meatballs
Mix the filling in order
It’s important to add all the liquid seasonings and water at the beginning, and mix until the liquid is fully absorbed. This will give the meatballs a moist texture and proper seasoning.
My mom always told me to add the sesame oil at the end, to seal the flavor and prevent the liquid from seeping out of the pork, if you’re not cooking the meatballs immediately.
One word about frying the meatballs
Once you shape the meatballs, you need to brown them to create the heavenly crust and seal the juiciness inside. It also helps the meatballs to keep their shape.
Since this is a very moist patty, it can be a bit tricky to pan fry while keeping them in an intact round shape. I wouldn’t worry if the meatballs are not perfectly shaped. And if you have trouble keeping them from falling apart, you can slightly press the meatballs so they have a slightly flat shape (but not as flat as a burger patty), so they’re easier to brown.
Steaming the meatballs
Once you steam the meatballs, some fat will be rendered out. The finished meatballs will be flavorful, tender, juicy yet not greasy.
How to serve lion’s meatballs
A lot of my American friends are not used to having meatballs without a sauce. But trust me, these Lion’s head meatballs are so well seasoned that they taste really good by themselves. I love to serve the meatballs as a main dish over steamed rice. And it’s always great to accompany them with some light and refreshing side dishes such as cucumber salad, okra stir-fry, or spinach salad.
The meatballs are one of my favorite lunch items, too. They freeze well and taste great after reheating. Stuff one of these into your lunchbox with steamed rice and some stir fried greens, and you’ll make all of your colleagues jealous when you heat it up in the office microwave.
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.
Other delicious pork recipes
- Chinese Braised Pork Trotters (红烧猪蹄)
- Pork Liver Stir Fry (炒猪肝)
- Pork and Chive Dumplings (猪肉韭菜水饺)
- Pork Chop Suey
- Sweet and Sour Ribs (糖醋小排)
- Jing Jiang Rou Si (Peking Shredded Pork, 京酱肉丝)
Lion’s Head Meatballs (狮子头, Shi Zi Tou)
- 1 lb (450 g) ground pork
- 4 tablespoons Shaoxing wine (or dry sherry)
- 3 tablespoons light soy sauce (or soy sauce)
- 1 teaspoon dark soy sauce
- 1 1/4 teaspoons salt (*Footnote 1)
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons grated ginger
- 4 green onions , minced
- 1 tablespoon cornstarch
- 12 (one 8-oz / 227-g can) water chestnuts , finely chopped
- 3 eggs
- 1 cup (50 g) panko (Japanese breadcrumbs)
- 2 tablespoons sesame oil
- 1 tablespoon peanut oil (or vegetable oil)
Prepare the meatballs
- Add ground pork into a large bowl. Add 4 tablespoons of 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 water chestnuts and eggs. Mix a few times. Then add panko. Mix well.
- At the end, add sesame oil. Mix until it forms a soft paste.
Cook the meatballs
- Heat the oil in a medium-sized skillet over medium-high heat until hot. Turn to medium heat.
- Brown the meatballs in batches. Scoop 1/3 cup of the ground meat mixture and shape it into a meatball. The meatball will be quite soft, barely able to hold its shape (so the finished meatballs will be tender and juicy). If the meatballs are too hard to handle and cannot hold their shape, add a bit more panko and mix again.
- Carefully place 3 to 4 meatballs in the skillet and make sure to leave enough space to flip them. When the bottom side turns golden brown, carefully roll the ball with a spatula to cook the other sides. Continue to do this until at least two sides are set and browned (*see footnote 2). Transfer to a deep plate or a bowl that can fit into your steamer rack. Continue to brown the rest of the meatballs.
- Steam the browned meatballs in batches. Heat water in a steamer until boiling. Place the plate of meatballs on the steaming rack and place the steaming rack onto the steamer. Cook covered until the meatballs are cooked through, 30 minutes or so.
- Cook the rest of the batches using the same method. After cooking the first batch, check the water level and add more if it runs too low. Serve hot 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 onto the meatballs before storage, to keep 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 heated 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) in it. Place a loose lid on top and heat it up in the microwave.
- I reduced the salt from my original recipe, since I received some feedback stating the meatballs were too salty. I think the current salt level (1 1/4 teaspoons) is great if you serve the meatballs as a main dish with greens. If you want to serve it with rice, consider using 1 1/2 teaspoons of salt.
- It can be difficult to keep the meatballs round shaped, 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.