Yangzhou-Style Lion Heads Question


Staff member
Joined Mar 29, 2002
I've enjoyed Lion Heads in the traditional style a number of times. This variation is interesting but the method seems off.

In the quoted recipe below, there are some things that strike me oddly. I'm wondering if I'm missing something about technique or practice that would make this clearer.

The cooking time of two hours seems very long, even for what amounts to a double boiler.

Then adding a lot of fat that just renders out to be removed later. This seems like it would rob a lot of flavor from the soup. I mean, you skim your stocks to keep them clear but also to keep the fat from stealing flavor.

From Caroly Phillips' All Under Heaven
Yangzhou-Style Lion Heads
Yángzhōu qīngtāng shīzitóu 揚州清湯獅子頭

Lion heads are familiar to those who love Shanghainese food. Most places that serve them offer only red-cooked lion heads, in which the meatballs are braised with soy sauce. That version is tasty, but I particularly like the Yangzhou recipe presented here because it allows for more delicate and nuanced flavors.

Yangzhou-Style Lion Heads differ from the Shanghainese versions in several ways. One major departure is the way in which the meatballs are prepared. Instead of a couple of meatballs piled into a sandpot or casserole with extra stuff like cabbage, these lion heads are double-boiled all alone in individual cups.

Then there is the way the pork is cooked: half of it is hand-chopped to create an airy texture and then extra pork fat is added—lots of fat, probably more than makes you comfortable. But don’t be alarmed, for most of it will melt into the soup and then be skimmed out before the dish is served.
There are a few other tweaks. A handful of chopped shrimp is tossed in, as well as bits of crunchy water chestnuts, which add a nice texture. There’s also lots of ginger juice added (instead of chopped ginger), a heavy dose of Shaoxing rice wine, and some good chicken stock.

1 pound ground pork (15 percent fat), divided in half
6 ounces pork fat
8 large shelled shrimp (8 ounces), fresh or frozen and defrosted
6 water chestnuts, fresh or frozen and defrosted, or 2 ounces jicama
2 green onions, white parts only, trimmed
2 tablespoons ginger juice
¼ cup Shaoxing rice wine
1 teaspoon mushroom powder or sea salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1½ tablespoons cornstarch
1 tablespoon old-fashioned rolled oats, finely chopped

3 cups unsalted chicken stock
1 teaspoon sea salt, or to taste
3 tablespoons Shaoxing rice wine
1 tablespoon ginger juice
Extra chicken stock, optional

1. Prepare 4 (1-cup) covered jars (see Tips) and a wide covered pot that easily holds the jars. Place half of the ground pork in a deep work bowl and the other portion on a chopping board. Finely chop this second half for about 5 minutes, as this will help bind the meatballs together. Scrape the meat up with your knife and add it to the other pork.

2. Chop the fat into pieces somewhere between the size of a soybean and a kernel of corn. Add them to the pork. Clean the shrimp (see this page), chop the meat very finely, and then add it to the bowl. Trim the water chestnuts and chop them into pieces just a little larger than grains of rice before tossing them into the bowl. Finely mince the white parts of the green onions and add them to the pork, along with the ginger juice, rice wine, mushroom powder or salt, sugar, cornstarch, and oats. Hold the rim of the bowl with one hand while you rapidly mix the pork together with your other hand. Keep beating the mixture until it is light and fluffy (see this page).

3. Divide the pork into 4 equal portions and roll these into balls. Slap 1 ball at a time from one hand to the other, sort of like a baseball pitcher warming up. This really helps to make the lion heads springy. Then roll each one back into a demure ball and drop these into the waiting jars.

4. Mix the stock with salt to taste plus the rice wine and ginger juice. Taste and adjust the flavors as needed. Pour equal amounts of the stock into each jar; it should cover the meatballs but still be about an inch from the top. Cover the jars with both lids (or the foil as noted in the Tips), place them in the pot, fill the pot with hot water until it is halfway up the sides of the jars, and place it over high heat. Cover the pot, and as soon as the water boils, reduce the heat to a good simmer and set the timer for 2 hours, adding more boiling water as necessary to maintain the level. The lion heads can be prepared ahead of time up to this point.

5. Remove the jars from the pot. Carefully pour out all the hot stock from each jar into a heatproof 4-cup measuring cup. Repeat this a couple of times because the meatballs will ooze out more juices as they sit. If you are serving them immediately, use a turkey baster to draw up the stock from the bottom of the cup, leaving the wide band of melted lard on top, and then discard the fat.

If you are doing this ahead of time, you can just let the stock cool and then remove the hard layer of fat. Taste the stock and adjust the seasoning as needed. Bring the defatted stock to a full boil and pour it back into the jars. If you find the stock too fishy or salty for your palate, use the optional fresh chicken stock instead and season to taste. Serve the lion heads very hot in their jars, with saucers underneath.

Yangzhou-Style Lion Heads are traditionally cooked and served in little covered clay jars that have two lids. The jars are placed in the bottom of a large pot, with water coming halfway up the sides of the jars. Two lids are placed on the jars to prevent any water from entering them, and the individual containers keep any violent heat or movement from breaking down the meatballs, while giving the cooking stock the chance to absorb the meat’s juices and vice versa.

If you don’t have these kinds of jars, use jelly jars and cover them tightly with foil. You can also tie string around the jars so that the foil stays put.

You can serve the lion heads in the jars if the jars are attractive. Otherwise, serve the meatballs and their soup in bowls. No matter the final serving container, place a small saucer under each serving dish to keep from burning your hands or those of your diners. Eat the lion heads with chopsticks and spoon up the soup.
Joined Sep 26, 2017
I don't think the fat will steal that much flavour.

I don't know about lion heads specifically, but the technique of adding lots of fat and rendering it out is common enough in Asian cooking. I have seen it done in several other dishes, but cannot seem to remember them names at the moment.

What's missing in this recipe though, is the information about the type of pork fat you need to use.

Soft pork fat will render out completely, leaving behind nothing; while hard pork fat will render out all it's oil content, but leaves behind a kind of jello-like substance (I don't know the proper name for it) that is quite pleasant to eat in meatballs.

In conclusion, rendered hard pork fat gives food a unique texture without the accompanying oiliness/greasiness of fat.
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