Shanghainese Lion's Head Meatballs

By • December 22, 2013 74 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.
The Editors

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!

More Great Recipes: Meatballs|Green Beans|Pork|Vegetables|Entrees

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Comments (74) Questions (1)

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2 months ago Jared B

For those who have issues with the number of eggs,: Eggs in China tend to be smaller than eggs in the US. Try two typical American eggs.

Shanghainese food tends to be sweeter than what many Westerners associate with American-Chinese food.

Great recipe!!

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5 months ago Virginia Bacon

I followed this recipe exactly as written despite being afraid of using all 3 eggs and it turned out amazing. As others have said ,the meatballs are incredibly tender and unlike anything I've ever had before. The flavor is also delicious, though I agree with other commenters that they are a little sweet for my tastes and reduce the amount of sugar used next time. But that's really a footnote to how amazing these turned out. Make them!

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8 months ago Valerie Thomas

I tried to make these, but omitted the cornstarch (I know, it's necessary, I just didn't have any and decided to try anyway). Needless to say, the first couple I tried to make completely fell apart, so I aborted and simply thew all the meat into the pan and made it into a minced meat thing. I then used napa cabbage as a shell and served it as tacos, with sautéed bok choy on the side. The flavor was delicious!

My question is this: I have a ton of left over meat, any ideas what to do with it? I was thinking maybe spring rolls? Or adding it and some rice noodles to a soup broth, or using it to make a pad thai inspired dish.

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7 months ago Momster

It's also a good base to make another Chinese comfort food. Assuming the leftover meat mix you have is still uncooked, you can Add 1 salted duck egg, smooth into a shallow bowl (a pie pan works great), and steam the meat until done. Eat with lots of rice! You can also add salted fermented black beans instead or nothing at all and steam as is. The meat will make a lovely broth when steamed. I'm Shanghainese and these were absolute staples of my mother's kitchen. The meat will also make nice wonton filling -- add some chopped scallion into it and minced bamboo shoots, or minced shrimp for pork and shrimp stuffing. However, do add a bit of cornstarch for any of these (doesn't matter if you forgot to before, just add it to the meat base anyway).

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11 months ago Claudia

Very good. I cut the sugar a little because of comments, and used 2 large eggs. I used a Dutch oven for the browning, then drained the oil and put in the bok choy and meatballs in there for steaming on low.

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12 months ago Jes Anderson

So tasty! I used turkey meat, one egg and no starch and everything turned out fabulously. Only need 15 minutes steaming and everything was done!

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about 1 year ago arielles

These were amazing! I am definitely making these again

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about 1 year ago Natalia Klishina

Made these for the first time (and I've never made meatballs before) — and it turned out great! Such an easy and delicious recipe.

— I loved this with 1/2 pork meat, and 1/2 turkey meat. You might have to use a little less egg since turkey meat tends to be juicier.

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over 1 year ago sususkitchen

OMgosh, a 5 star Michelin recipe!!!!! Delizioso

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over 1 year ago Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast

Made these for the first time this past weekend... WOW. I'm so glad I finally tried them. I made very few modifications to the recipe, and served them alongside spicy glass noodles. Thanks for sharing!

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over 1 year ago J Hu

I've made this twice and so I can share with you guys my tweaks and tips. I highly recommend making this with 3 eggs. I also added a bit more soy sauce and sesame oil. I might even add chinese chives next time with the green onions. From the start, I used my KitchenAid mixer on the lowest speed. I blend in the corn starch and eggs while it's mixing. I used an ice cream scoop with a silicone spatula to 'form' the meatball and place it in the pan. It's ok that the meatball is not perfectly round. My hands never tough the sticky mixture. As for the steaming part, I placed my vegetable steamer (from crate & barrel) in a large stock pot that has about .75" of water, and then lined that with napa cabbage. I used baby bok choy the first time and that just cooks too fast and burnt it. (I stir fried the bok choy on it's own and mixed it in at the end.) I only steamed for 25 to 30 min.

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over 1 year ago omegatop

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

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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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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over 1 year 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.