Note: No lions were harmed in the preparation of this food blog post.
Traditional Chinese dinners always involve some kind of broth-based soup that has been simmering for hours to extract nature’s goodness from yummy veggies. This soup is usually the embodiment of love from a hardworking mother, father, or grandparent and sets the tone for the meal to follow. However, as a working professional, it is really difficult to devote that amount of time to make a soup when you’ve got other dishes to prepare as well. There are times I wish I were living with my family so that I can get spoiled with delicious soup. Stubborn as I am, I’m determined to live independently, so I’ve begun experimenting with soups that are nourishing, filling, and most importantly, less time consuming.
Lion’s head soup is a traditional Chinese soup. I’ve kept my version of this traditional soup relatively simple and healthy. This is a wonderful addition to a meal, especially in the fall and winter, when you want a bowl of something hot and steamy to warm your bones. Think of it as a low-carb deconstructed wonton/dumpling soup. This lion’s head meatball is very similar to the fillings of delicious pot stickers and wontons and can be used as a foundation for your next wonton/pot sticker party.
Chinese-style meatballs are distinct in that they have a very springy and bouncy texture, achieved by working the meat and developing the gluten from the corn starch that has been added. What we are looking for in this meatball is not a loose, soft texture. Rather, we want these meatballs to be firm so that they do not fall apart as they cook in the soup.
You can easily turn this into a wonton soup by stuffing wonton skins with the meatball mixture rather than cooking the meatballs directly in the broth. To do this, you would need to use another pot of boiling water and cook the wontons separately in this pot, strain, and then serving with the broth at the end. In making Chinese noodle soup, it is always recommended to boil noodles and dumplings in a separate pot of water rather than in the pot of broth. This keeps the broth from thickening as a result of the starch from the noodle.
This next tip may sound more like a rant. Apologies ahead of time, but this is something that needs to change in American versions of Chinese/Asian cooking. Many Americanized versions of Asian recipes call for sesame oil in everything, but I feel that this addition is often gratuitous, and a misuse of a popularized Asian ingredient. In other words, it seems that recipes use sesame oil just because it is a well-known Asian ingredient and people want a surefire way to make their food bear a hallmark Asian flavor. Sesame oil has a potent earthy flavor that can overpower a dish when added without forethought. In other words, it can make your food taste like dirt. In Chinese cooking, sesame oil is only used in specific dishes, not in everything that is prepared. That said, it is my opinion that sesame oil should only be used in specific dishes, paired with specific ingredients. Examples of appropriate uses of sesame oil: a small drop in rice congee, soy sauce & sugar sauce mixes for braising chicken (e.g., 3 cups chicken), marinating fried tofu, and marinating sweet/savory cucumber pickles. Superfluous/unnecessary uses of sesame oil: stir-fries, chow mien, fried rice. Vietnamese dishes rarely use sesame oil. If you find one with this ingredient, you might question its authenticity. Korean cooking, on the other hand, uses sesame oil heavily.
Prep Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 25 minutes
1 lb pork neck bones
2 tbsp fish sauce or 1-2 tsp salt to taste
4 carrots, chopped into 2-inch pieces
2 cups chopped napa cabbage
Lion’s Head Meatballs
1 lb ground pork
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp minced ginger
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tbsp soy sauce
pinch of salt, to taste
pinch of white or black pepper
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch green onion, finely chopped
1 tbsp corn starch
Heat a large pot with enough water to cover the pork neck bones. Place bones inside water and boil until meat becomes brown and begins to produce brownish foam ~7-10 minutes. Discard liquid and rinse pork bones. Fill with 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil. Add in carrots once water begins to boil and turn fire to medium low.
While waiting for water to boil, prepare lion’s head meatballs. Place ground pork, garlic, ginger, sesame oil, soy sauce, salt, pepper, sugar, green onion, and corn starch into a large mixing bowl. Use hands to mix together all ingredients for meatballs. Knead meatballs for 5 minutes, lifting the mixture and using force to toss it back into the mixing bowl. Repeat at least 5 times until mixture begins to stick together. Set aside.
Check broth. Once carrots have softened, begin forming meat mixture into meatballs ~2 inches in diameter. Turn heat on high. Drop meatballs into the soup and allow to cook until their color turns from pink to light brown.
Once meatballs turn light brown, add in Napa cabbage, stirring gently to submerge into the broth. Cook for another 5 minutes or until cabbage has softened. Taste for seasoning and add salt, fish sauce, or sugar to taste.
Spoon into individual bowls and garnish with fresh green onion. If you would like, add a small drop of sesame oil to the broth and serve.