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November 3, 2011

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Lion's Head a roaring success

MANY foreigners are intrigued, or perhaps a bit put off, when they first encounter a menu item called shizitou or Lion's Head soup or stew.

"Based on the name, I tried to imagine it. Some big head on a plate? Sounds too bloody," said my sister Molly Gao, an Australian-born Chinese from Melbourne.

In fact, Lion's Head is an elaborately prepared pork meatball served with a "mane" of surrounding green vegetables or cabbage, all swimming in a soup or stew. Usually two steamed meatballs (7-10cm in diameter) are either cooked with the soup or braised first in soybean sauce and then added to the soup and greens.

It's a classic, a representative dish of Huaiyang cuisine, a famous regional style in Jiangsu Province. Huaiyang refers to the region of three cities, Huai'an (hence, the name), Yangzhou and Zhenjiang. Huaiyang dishes are known for their fine chopping and mincing, their delicacy and light, but balanced, flavors.

Emperor's favorite

It is said that Lion's Head meatballs, originally named Kuihua meatballs, were created by the chef of Emperor Yang of the Sui Dynasty (569-618) to commemorate Kuihuagang, a scenic spot in Yangzhou that delighted the emperor when he visited.

Later, in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), Duke Xun told his chef to prepare the dish at a banquet. To flatter the duke, guests said the name Kuihua meatball could not adequately describe his majesty, adding that the meatball resembled the head of a lion with a shaggy mane. Lions everywhere represent courage and power.

Ever since, the dish has been known as Lion's Head.

Those in search of the authentic Lion's Head may wish to visit Yangzhou, birthplace of the lion's head. The scenic city on the Grand Canal is also known for its well-preserved and unspoiled historic district featuring classical gardens built in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

Across the city, Lion's Head is served everywhere, from street stalls and simple eateries to luxury hotels and fine restaurants.

Yangzhou chefs follow the same general recipes and techniques as their ancestors, but there are a variety of Lion's Heads, with different textures and flavors. Some are light and melt in the mouth, some are salty and elastic.

Locals love the dish and serve it all year round, with different seasonal ingredients chopped into the meat and floating in the soup. "It changes according to the season," says Shanghai food critic Jiang Liyang, who writes a column about traditional Chinese cuisine.

In spring, fresh and tender bamboo shoots are chopped finely and added to the minced pork, giving it more texture. In summer, chopped greens and chestnuts are added. In autumn, the hairy crab season, crab meat and crab roe are combined with the meat, to give it a sweeter flavor and creamy taste. In winter, the meatballs are stewed with fengji, a dry breezed chicken flavored with ginger, onion and salt, making it rich in flavor.

Kungfu in kitchen

In making Lion's Head, the chef's skills are essential to the success of the dish.

Chef Tony Su, executive chef at The Langham Xintiandi Shanghai, says the final taste is determined by the proportion of fat and lean meat minced together, the tempo of preparation, the order in which water and seasonings are added, the chef's personal knife skills and the dexterity with which he shapes the meat ball by hand.

"It's totally a kind of kungfu in the kitchen," jokes chef Tony.

"The more fat used, the tender the texture. But the flavor will also become oily and unhealthy. Traditionally, we used 70 percent fat and 30 percent lean. Now we have changed the proportion to 60/40," says Du Caiqing, chef de cuisine of Hyatt on the Bund.

Chef Tony describes his meatball kungfu.

First, he slices and dices the pork into tiny pieces of identical size. He chops fast and evenly, so the pork doesn't lose moisture before it's combined with other ingredients.

Second, he mixes the meat and seasonings in a bowl with one hand and simultaneously adds thickener starch water with the other hand. It requires good coordination and dexterity.

Third, he shapes the meatball and bounces or tosses it between his two hands until it's a nice spherical shape.

"It's hand work that takes time, it's very labor-intensive. To save labor costs, some restaurants use machines to mince the meat and shape the ball, which destroys not only the original texture but also the traditional cuisine culture," says food critic Jiang.

You can always tell whether the balls are hand made.


First, savor the appearance.

A good steamed Lion's Head meatball has a rough surface, white meat, green cabbage or greens and clear soup. The rough skin not only gives a nice texture but is also a sign that meatballs are made by hand, not by machine.

Then, inhale the aroma.

Steamed Lion's Head should have an aroma of both oily fat and refreshing greens. If it's braised in soy sauce, then it will be sweet, fatty and slightly smoky.

Third, taste it.

For steamed Lion's Head, it's recommended to taste the soup before trying the meat. Cooked for more than half an hour together with the meatball, the broth completely absorbs the flavor.

The soup is an indicator of the quality of the pork.

Then, take a big bite of the Lion's Head to fully experience the flavor and texture. It should be tender, elastic and juicy; rich and fatty but not too oily.

And then eat the fresh cabbage and greens to balance the fatty flavor of the meatball.

When serving a meal, the Lion's Head should come last, after lighter dishes such as shrimp, fish and vegetables. "Otherwise their light flavor will be overwhelmed by the rich meat," says Chef Tony.

Where to get a bite

In Shanghai, there are fine Huaiyang restaurants where Lion's Head can be ordered.
Ye Shanghai
This restaurant features Shanghai cuisine, which is influenced by Huaiyang food culture. The Lion's Head braised in soybean sauce is tender with a balance of sweet and salty taste.
Tel: 6311-2323
Address: 338 Huangpi Rd S.

Ming Court
Authentic hand-made Lion's Head is availed at the restaurant which is housed at The Langham Xintiandi Shanghai.
Tel: 2330-2288
Address: 99 Madang Rd

In Yangzhou, birthplace of the Lion's Head, making the meatball is a culinary art. Here are a few places to find it.
Yangzhou State Guesthouse
Near the Shouxihu scenic spot, the guesthouse is famous for traditional Huaiyang cuisine, featuring hairy crab Lion's Head and views of classical Chinese gardens.
Tel: 0514-8780-9888
Address: 48 Youyi Rd

Lu Family Mansion
The restaurant is situated in a luxurious residence built in the 19th century by Lu Shaoxu, a salt tycoon. The main central courtyard is lined with small gardens and rockeries. Steamed Lion's Head is recommended.
Tel: 0514-8790-7197
Address: 22 Kangshan St


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