Red braised lion’s head.
Red braised lion’s head.
Image: Yang Zhao

Lion’s head is not only a mountain in Cape Town; is also a classic dish on a Chinese banquet table. It’s not what you think, before you quickly exclaim that we cook and eat everything in Chinese cuisine. Well, we do enjoy a diverse ingredient and flavour profile, but the head of a lion is not a part of it.

Traditionally, lion’s head refers to meat balls made of pork. Its key characteristic is the “fat to lean” ratio of the mince mixture — 50:50. A good amount of fat makes the mouthfeel — not only Chinese chefs believe this. There are two ways of preparing lion’s head: white or red. White is in broth with napa cabbage; red is cooked in red braised sauce (dark soy, light soy, sugar, oyster sauce, ginger and leek).

The brothy version shows off the meatball’s original flavour, whereas red braised lion’s head is more robust, fragrant, and fun to eat. Of course, you can spice up your broth for the white version too. Lastly, why is it called lion’s head? It is rumoured that the bumpy surface reminded the ancient chef, who came up with it, of the heads of stone lion sculptures one often finds at the entrances of buildings.

The traditional methods of preparation for white and red lion’s head are both long and labour intensive. From assembling the meatballs, to cooking broth in advance, to mixing red braised sauce from scratch, to braising the meatballs low and slow for hours. Good things take time, as we’re told. However, every now and then, we’re allowed to take advantage of time saved in the kitchen. 

This recipe uses ready-made beef frikkadels from Woolworths instead of pork; red braised sauce from Lee Kum Kee; and store-bought chicken broth. You can add some thin rice noodles to the lion’s head broth or cook up some steamed rice to go with your saucy, red braised meatballs. A great midweek dinner for the chilly season.

Red braised lion’s head: serves two people

Ingredients

  • 400g ready made meat ball
  • 2 tsp dark soy
  • 2 TBS Lee Kum Kee red braised sauce
  • 1 ½ TBS oyster sauce
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 3 slices of ginger
  • ½ stalk of leek, cut in half

Methods

  1. Heat oil in pan
  2. Pan fry to seal meat balls, till both sides are crispy; or you can use more oil and deep fry meat balls till golden brown. Remove and set aside
  3. In small pot, mix together dark soy, red braised sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, ginger and leek
  4. Add meatballs, bring to the boil, then reduce to the lowest heat and cook for 30 min
  5. Add cornstarch to thicken if you wish, and serve over a bowl of steamed rice

Lion’s head and napa cabbage broth: serves two people

Lion’s head and napa cabbage broth.
Lion’s head and napa cabbage broth.
Image: Yang Zhao

Ingredients

  • 400g ready-made meatballs
  • 3 cups of nappa cabbage, roughly chopped
  • ½ cup of shiitake mushroom, sliced
  • 500ml of chicken broth OR
  • 500ml of water and 1 table spoon of miso paste
  • 1 TBS soy sauce
  • 1 x stalk of spring onion, chopped, to garnish

Methods

  1. Pan fry to seal meatballs, till both sides are crispy; or you can use more oil and deep fry meatballs till golden brown. Remove and set aside
  2. Add meatballs to broth or miso-based water, bring to the boil, reduce to medium heat and let simmer for 20 min
  3. Add mushrooms for the last 10 min
  4. Sprinkle with spring onion to garnish
  5. Optional: Add vermicelli noodles or rice noodles in the last 10 min to create a noodle soup. 

Serve and enjoy!

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