Shanghainese Lion's Head Meatballs

By • December 22, 2013 • 63 Comments


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Author Notes: This is a recipe passed down from my great-grandmother on my father's side -- he missed these so much when my family came to the United States that he taught himself to cook just to make them again. They are, in many ways, the epitome of Shanghainese cooking: flavorful but not overwhelming, savory-sweet, with a bit of shaoxing wine for extra depth. Perfect warming comfort food. If you want a saltier or more intense flavor, increase the amount of soy sauce and sesame oil.cynthia | two red bowls

Food52 Review: WHO: Two Red Bowls is a Brooklyn-based lawyer who loves to cook.
WHAT: An authentic, tender meatball you won't be able to get enough of.
HOW: Mix, shape, fry, steam, eat.
WHY WE LOVE IT: These meatballs are just plain delicious, but they have two things in particular working to make them super tender: three eggs instead of two, and undergoing a quick steam on bok choy at the end of cooking. We'll take seconds, please.
A&M

Serves 4

  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon shaoxing cooking wine, mirin, or sake
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon sesame oil
  • 1 green onion, chopped finely
  • 1 teaspoon minced ginger
  • 2 to 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 large eggs, beaten (2 if you want firmer meatballs)
  • 1/4 cup green bean starch (if unavailable, cornstarch will work just fine)
  • 1 pound bok choy, stems trimmed but otherwise intact
  1. Combine everything but the eggs, starch, and bok choy together in a large bowl and mash vigorously until well-blended. I just use my hands.
  2. Add the starch and mix with a fork (I withdraw the hands-on approach at this point because the starch makes it quite sticky). Beat the eggs and add, mixing again to incorporate. The mixture will seem extremely liquid at first -- just continue to mix and the egg will gradually absorb into the pork, leaving a thick porridge-like mixture. If you want rounder and firmer meatballs that you can shape with your hands, use two eggs instead of three. I thought this yielded meatballs that were lovely and tender, so I used three.
  3. Pour about 1/4 cup of oil into a large wok, or enough to coat the bottom with about 1/2 inch of oil. Turn the heat to medium and give the oil a few minutes to warm up. Using a 1/4-cup measuring cup or a large ice cream scoop, drop balls of the pork mixture into the wok in a single layer. Let sizzle in the pan for 2 to 3 minutes or until browned, then flip and cook the other side. Once the meatball is browned on both sides (it doesn't have to be cooked through), remove with a slotted spoon and set aside. You will likely have to fry in two batches.
  4. Once all the meatballs are browned, line the bottom of a large pot with the bok choy leaves. Place the meatballs on top and turn the heat to medium-low. Cover and let steam for 30 to 40 minutes, or until bok choy leaves have wilted and the stems are tender. Serve with rice!

Comments (63) Questions (1)

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3 days ago omegatop

Mixture was very runny and was unable to form meatballs without adding breadcrumbs.

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23 days ago homie sapiens

Very tasty, and I think the browning then steaming technique is genius! The constraints of my fridge meant that I only used one egg, but they were still super tender and delicious. My only change for next time will be a smidge less sugar and salt, because the greens get really meaty and fragrant too and thus unless I make white rice there is no bland foil for the meatballs.

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26 days ago frances

This was so yummy! Also agree that it steamed much faster. I used cornstarch and did find them a bit starchy.

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about 1 month ago JaySkelton

I cannot adequately express my joy with this recipe! The meatballs (three egg version) tasted just like a certain pork dumpling I used to get at a Chinese teahouse. The flavor and texture of these meatballs are to die for.

Things I'd change: I think a little chopped waterchestnut added to the meat mixture would add just a tiny bit more textural diversity and make them even better. The bok choy, on the other hand, did little for us: maybe it's our small steamer, but we could only get a few leaves in and they ended up being a tiny side, almost like an after thought.

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about 1 month ago Kelly Seach

Thanks for this recipe. We are soy and egg free due to allergies in our household but these worked out great with fish sauce and chia seeds as respective substitutes.

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about 1 month ago new123

well, steam may save time, but that is not the essence of the recipe. I am not a meat lover but love the bok choy in it. Of course, do what you like (this also goes with how much salt you like to add...)

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about 1 month ago Zabrina

These are the best meatballs I've ever had! I agree with the comment below me about the steaming time - it only took about 20 minutes for them to steam. I'll definitely be making these again!

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2 months ago fearlessem

I made these tonight, and just a few comments for others who might try them... They steamed much faster than anticipated -- my bok choy and meatballs were done in 15 minutes rather than the 30-40 listed in the recipe. I found the meatballs overly salty, and the bok choy underseasoned, so I personally would adjust the salt level for each next time... And I used only two eggs, and the mixture was still so loose that I really had meat-pancakes rather than meatballs. The texture of the finished meatballs was good, but I can't imagine what it would have looked like if I'd used three eggs...

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3 months ago christina@afroditeskitchen

yay Cynthia! :D Can't wait to make these yummy goodies next time it's meatball night. Super yum!

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3 months ago Virginia

Lovely! Slight change up, I browned the meatballs under the broiler to avoid the oil. This is just my standard for "browning". Thanks so much as my guy and I enjoy them tremendously.

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3 months ago Dev

Loved the meatballs! i bet you could easily take these same meatballs and make a different meal/ flavor blend by adding a spicy garlic sauce on these!

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3 months ago Linda Johnson

I've love these and have been making varous variations for years.. I think they were also in the Moosehouse Inn's recipe.. years ago, some use napa cabbage or wood ear mushrooms.. I've used chicken or ground turkey and have added e.g. 5 spice poweder to the meatballs and some toasted sesame oil when it's close to finishing.. mirin as well, have fun and add your favorite spices .. I also like it spicey!

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3 months ago Serenablake

Two Red Bowls, I can't thank you enough. What a delicious recipe! I have made it 3 times in the last two weeks. I use two eggs and prepared the dish tonight using the steam method on my rice cooker. The rice cooker yielded better results in terms of the bok choy. Either cooking method, this is a game changer and a keeper. Thank you!

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3 months ago Ruthy

just curious, what does one win if Food52 chooses your winning recipe?

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3 months ago CHeeb

This recipe turned out delicious. I used the corn starch,having no bean starch, and mirin in lieu of the Chinese wine. I also only used two eggs, and they were plenty of moisture. The steaming of the patties really made for tender meat balls,and the meat gave the bok choi great flavor. What a family treasure!!!

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3 months ago bluejeangourmet

planning to make these tonight! we like to try a special recipe each Friday evening - we always stay home and have family time. I've got some radish greens from our garden that I plan to use in place of the bok choy leaves...can't wait to try it. have a feeling my 18 month old is going to eat more than his fair share of these meatballs!

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3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

I love that! We like to make Friday nights our date nights, too -- I love the idea of making it family time and trying something new. It means so much to me to be able to contribute to it :) I hope you love these (and hope your little one does too!) So intrigued by the idea of using radish greens -- I'd love to hear how that turns out! Thank you for making these! :)

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3 months ago bluejeangourmet

these were such a hit that today we finished off the few that were leftover! my son LOVED them, as did we--excellent texture and that bright ginger flavor is fabulous. the slightly radish greens were a nice counterpoint to the sweetness of the meatballs, but I definitely want to try them as written with bok choy next. we will absolutely be making these again (and again)! thank you for sharing this recipe.

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3 months ago Jenny Y

I was born and raised in Shanghai, and this is one of my absolute childhood favorites! I can't tell you how excited I am to see this recipe, and how easy it looks. Will be making it VERY soon!!!

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3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

Oh YAY!!! You'll have to tell me how it matches up to what you remember. I imagine it's one of those dishes that varies from home to home, so I'll keep my fingers crossed that you like them :)

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3 months ago Carey Nershi

Congratulations, Cynthia!! These definitely look like perfect winter comfort food. (And would be yet another fab way for me to use the Le Creuset oven I got for Christmas — it's probably bored with all the bread baking at this point.) :)

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3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

Thank you so much, dear Carey! :) And oh my goodness, that gorgeous oven!! Yes!

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3 months ago tulip549

For those of us who don't eat pork, do you think this will work with ground beef? I'm going to give it a try!

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3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

Hi there! I'm sure that it would "work" in the sense that they would still be meatballs and would not fall apart or anything like that, but they will simply taste more like beef -- I've never had them that way, so I can't say more than that. If you do try them, though, I hope you still love them! :)

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3 months ago alexandra

I bet if you try it with veal the flavors will be more similar to the original recipe.

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about 1 month ago Marta

Alexandra, I made them with veal and they were delicious!

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3 months ago cookiesforlucy

I love shizi tou!

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3 months ago cynthia | two red bowls

Yay! Me too!!! :):)