Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Dad's Special Meatball - Yang Zhou Lion's Head Meatballs (Shi Zi Tou)

Yang Zhou Lion's Head Meatballs (Shi Zi Tou)
Home Cooking

There's a dish that I think of as Shanghainese which is a bit like a meatball casserole. They are pork meatballs and they are huge. We call them lion's heads and here's a good example. In a bid to increase my knowledge/experience in making cultural cuisine, I asked my dad if he could make some and show me how.

Initially he debunked the idea as too involved. Apparently he made them once before unsuccessfully. I forgot all about my request until one day, at the butcher, he says "I'm planning to make the meatballs this weekend. Make sure you're home for dinner or I won't bother, because it'll take a long time to do". I gave my word that indeed I would be and so, the process commenced.

Dad's recipes are a bit of a challenge to blog because he's usually vague with quantities. This time, he made the effort to write down measurements. This meatball recipe/technique was handed down from his grandmother's side of the family. Dad gave me a history of Yang Zhou, which is a city of Jiang Su province. Apparently, back in the day they were famous for 3 types of knife skills: butchering, barbering and cutting old callouses off feet (which is an actual occupation in China, even now).

With their meatballs, they can be plain pork or pork and crab roe. They can also be 'white' (i.e. slow cooked with no soy sauce) or 'red' (sealed in oil first and contains soy for coloring). The ones he made are plain pork and white. They are different to the ones I know as 'Shanghainese' (like the link I posted above).

Pork belly

The most important aspect of the recipe is the way the meat is processed. Dad uses whole pork belly and stresses that you MUST NOT use bought mince or 'mince' your meat yourself with a random, hacking/cleaving action. His reason is that you want to preserve the water content of the meat and hacking/mincing it will release water from the cells. Coming from anyone else, I would think this was a load of quack but my dad was a biochemist so maybe there is some science to what he's saying. The correct method of handling the meat is described below.

Yang Zhou Lion's Heat Meatballs
6 large ones (Serves ~ 10)

  • 500g pure lean pork
  • 250g pure pork fat (we obtained the correct ratio of protein:fat from 750g of pork belly)
  • salt for seasoning (MSG optional)
  • 125g starch powder (we use cornstarch)
  • 225g water
  • 1cm cube of ginger, grated
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • bok choi (~ 2 bundles)
  • 1 tbsp Chinese cooking wine

1. With your pork belly, make sure it's fully thawed and separate the skin, fat and lean meat into 3 separate piles. Set the skin aside.2. For the meat and fat, first cut into thin slices, then cut the slices into neat strips and then cut the strips into fine dice. The finer the better but don't 'chop' because that releases the water. If at any time you need to pause and store the meat (which is understandable because this is hard work), make sure it's completely covered so that water isn't allowed to evaporate away.
3. Combine the finely diced fat and meat together and roughly chop for around 1min. Don't go nuts here (again for reasons of moisture preservation). Season with salt here. Dad says to use common sense and MSG if you wish (my family stays clear of the stuff).4. Stir the starch through the water to combine. Stir through the ginger and shallot.
5. With one hand mixing the meat, use the other hand to gradually add in the starch water. Use a wooden spoon for the mixing and a soup spoon to slowly add the water (spoonful by spoonful).
6. Wet your hands with starchy water and grab 1/3 of the meat to form into a ball. Bounce the ball around between your left and right hand a few times. This firms it up. Repeat 2 times.
7. Line a medium-sized casserole dish with bok choi stems. Place the meatballs onto and lay bok choi leaves over. Use up one bunch of bok choi doing this and save the other bunch for later. You can lay the skin (reserved from earlier) into the dish at this point. The gelatine from the skin will help thicken the sauce. Add 2 tablespoons of water and 1 tablespoon of good Chinese cooking wine.
8. Slow cook for 3 hours.
9. 10min before the meatballs are ready, and the other bok choi bunch by cutting it up and distributing around the meat. This will cook it in time to be served with the meat. 10. Serve with lots of steamed rice.

The method itself is really easy but I won't pretend it's easy to process the meat this way. I gave it a go and found it excruciatingly slow. You have to have a good technique and be patient because once you get mad and start hacking at it, that defies the whole purpose.

Melty meatball interior

In terms of end result, I really think there is something to the method because the meatballs had unparalleled tenderness. They were more 'melt-in-the-mouth' than any meat dish I've had before.

The flavor here is very simple (just 'pork flavored' really) so texture is the most important element to get right. Make sure you have rice and vegetables here because the meatballs themselves are very fatty/filling and impossible to eat on their own.

Even though this makes just 3 balls, they are plenty for sharing.

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