Shanghainese Lion's Head Meatballs

May  7, 2021
4.6 Stars
Photo by James Ransom
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 Chen McTernan

Test Kitchen Notes

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

  • Prep time 20 minutes
  • Cook time 1 hour
  • 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 cloves of garlic, minced (up to 3)
  • 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
In This Recipe
  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!
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96 Reviews

creamtea May 15, 2022
Made these for the second time (meatballs only). Both we and our guest loved them! I subbed ground beef for pork, and flour for the cornstarch (didn't have the latter on hand). After forming, I refrigerated for about 35-40 minutes to firm up a little and make it easier to handle. Scrumptious and so tender! We have leftovers--Yay!
FrugalCat January 21, 2022
Love the steaming technique with bok choy. I have made these meatballs with ground turkey as well. My household likes Shanghai bok choy- similar to regular, but with green stems.
Andrea N. October 26, 2021
One of my favorite food52 recipes, make it at least once a month. So flavorful! We double the amt of bok choy!
Sharon S. February 18, 2020
This is a super “ Go To” recipe in our household! We love the “homey” taste of an authentic Chinese kitchen that these patties bring to the table. We are 4 generations Chinese family who loves eating together. These Lion heads are spot on! Thank you so much for sharing!
Katie M. October 26, 2019
Made it, loved it! I had a handful of fresh shiitakes I needed to use so I minced them added them to the meatballs, otherwise didn’t modify. I like the sweetness but might cut it a tiny bit next time. Regardless, this was fun to cook and delicious with brown rice!
adrienne May 7, 2019
These turned out great! I used ground chicken and extra soy and sesame oil like suggested for more savory result. Also 2 eggs.
Cody S. March 1, 2019
This recipe is perfect! Has anyone made the mixture up ahead of time, refrigerated for a few hours, and then fried and steamed later? I don’t see why this wouldn’t work but I am not sure how the eggs/cornstarch would hold up...
Oui, C. March 1, 2019
I dont know the science cornstarch/eggs, but my guess it would be fine. Maybe halve the cooking now to set, then finish off right before serving. They are a thumbs up plate.
creamtea May 15, 2022
I did this but only refrigerated for about 1/2-1 hour, then fried. This worked well.
AJ D. July 25, 2018
tried it, loved it, made modifications, shouldn't have.

the sugar is an integral part of this dish. I wouldn't cut it in half next time, but instead use 3/4 or 5/6s of it. the sweetness SEEMS wrong, but after getting a taste of legit Shanghainese food, I now crave it.
kschurms June 10, 2018
One of my go to’s! I also cut the sugar in half, but when making with pork follow the rest of the recipe to a t. For a lighter version I do ground turkey, 2 eggs, and a sprinkle of panko breadcrumbs instead of cornstarch. Always serve over coconut rice!
Lauren R. February 16, 2018
I cut the sugar in half and these things were perfect! I had only two eggs and they still came out very soft - great texture. Their softness actually meant that they flattened a fair amount when frying, but they still taste great. I'm usually just cooking for myself or me and my roommate, and so I used half of these for one meal, then froze the second half after only browning and we had them later in the week - GREAT option for a frozen dinner to whip out when you don't want to cook.
Amanda T. February 11, 2018
Delicious, but much too sweet for our palate (this includes my six-year-old). Next time I will cut the sugar in half. Otherwise totally yummy!
Maggie February 1, 2018
Made this dish to the T. My husband enjoyed it but I found it to be too sweet for my taste. I will cut down the sugar next time. Also will try adding some waterchest nuts to give texture.
Mike S. November 21, 2017
I've had this sitting in my "to try" list for so long and finally got around to it last night. Normally I wouldn't even leave a comment, but this recipe was so perfect and delicious, I can't stop talking about it. One of the best recipes I've come across. Thank you!
Donna H. August 25, 2017
I would eat this for sure! Looks delicious!
Melanie J. January 17, 2017
Made this this weekend and followed recipe as-is. Really enjoyed this, it was very easy to throw together as I had mostly everything already in my pantry. Definitely used a fork to mix together as it is pretty messy so my meatballs were more fatty patties but no matter, tasted great! Only thing I might do next time is add some heat! Fantastic weeknight meal that won't keep you in the kitchen for hours. Would make again.
Rochelle April 7, 2016
First time commenting here. This meal was outstanding! Followed directions as written, but added diced water chestnuts to pork mixture. I wore plastic gloves while mixing and shaping meatballs and lined my Staub with some Savoy cabbage under bok choy and meatballs. My meatballs were on the I large size and all was done in 35 min. I can't speak highly enough as to how delicious this was. One of the best things I've had ! Will definitely be making these try them.

Meflan October 7, 2015
I cut the sugar from 3 tablespoons to just a pinch (not because I thought it would taste bad that way, but for health reasons), and used 1/2 teaspoon of salt. They were still very tasty, and I encourage anyone who has diabetes or other health concerns to give them a try- the ingredients work so well together that you won't miss any sweetness. For what it's worth, I also used 2 eggs because my family tends to buy large eggs. Thank you Cynthia for posting!
Jared B. June 29, 2015
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!!
Virginia M. April 9, 2015
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!
Valerie T. January 8, 2015
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.
Momster January 25, 2015
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).
Author Comment
Cynthia C. November 21, 2017
I'm three years late, but I love these suggestions so much, Momster!
Jen December 6, 2017
I love these meatballs and was just thinking about making them into a dumpling of some sort. @Monster (if you're still around!) do you know how long they'd take to cook in either soup or a steamer?
Jen December 6, 2017
Ooop! Momster. Not Monster. ;)