How to make steamed ‘lion head’ meatballs

By Zhanglin Kong, registered dietician and program director of WIC/Nutrition at South Cove Community Health Center


Lion head is a famous Chinese dish for Lunar New Year. The lion head dishes we usually see in restaurants are “hong siu” style, as the meatballs are deep fried before being braised in sauce. However, do you know that the traditional method to cook homemade lion head is by steaming? After asking a few friends from China, I came up with a recipe for lion head that requires only simple ingredients and steaming.

Steamed lion head meatballs. (Image courtesy of Zhanglin Kong.)

Steamed lion head meatballs. (Image courtesy of Zhanglin Kong.)

Lion head is usually made with pork and bok choy. The main ingredients for the meatballs are minced pork and egg white. To replace the excessive saturated fat in the dish, I mix minced Chinese yam into ground lean pork. Chinese yam is also called nagaimo, which has a sticky texture that works well to hold the meat together. Egg white also keeps the meatball’s shape and adds flavor.

To flavor the mixture, salt and ground ginger juice was added. Soy sauce was not used in this recipe, as I wanted the flavor of pork and clam to stand out. Other optional seasonings include black pepper, cumin and oyster sauce.

After mixing all ingredients together, place the bok choy leaves and clams in the bottom of the pot. Make three layers with the leaves at the very bottom, the clams in the middle and another layer of leaves. Pour chicken broth into the pot to immerse the clams, but do not cover the top layer of leaves. The idea is to lift the meatballs up and cook them by with steam, giving it the clam flavor.

The most crucial step for making meatballs is molding. It is best to wet your hands with clean water before touching the meat to avoid sticky hands. Each meatball need to be beat for a few minutes to push out the air trapped inside. I simply throw the meatball from one hand to another. When you feel the texture is firm enough to stand up, the meatball is ready to be placed on the bok choy leaves in the pot.

Cover the pot and heat it on high. After the chicken broth boils, adjust the heat to low and let the broth simmer for about 40 minutes. When the bok choy leaves turn mushy, the meatballs will fall into the broth. This is when the lion heads are formed: the soft leaves around the meatball resemble a lion’s mane. Sprinkle diced scallion on the meatballs for vivid color.

This simple recipe doesn’t require extra cooking oil or any type of frying. However the meatballs still come out tender and full of flavor, thanks to the clams, Chinese yam and ginger. I hope all of you enjoy this healthy but delicious dish as much as I do!

Ingredients for the meatballs. (Image courtesy of Zhanglin Kong.)

Ingredients for the meatballs. (Image courtesy of Zhanglin Kong.)

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