Foodie recipe
Ian Leatt


If you think the meatballs from Italy are amazing, you have tried nothing until you try these. A Chinese delicacy typically served on special occasions or celebratory events. “Spring festival” comes to mind. These meatballs are light and airy inside, crispy outside, and the sauce that compliments them extremely intoxicating and flavorful.

What are Lionhead Meatballs? Lionhead Meatballs are large pork meatballs that are either steamed or braised and served with vegetables. Their name derives from their shape, which resembles the head of a Chinese guardian lion, or foo dog. 

Lionhead Meatballs is also a classic dish from Huaiyang, one of the four major cuisines in China, representing the culinary traditions of Eastern China and primarily Jiangsu Province. There are two varieties of Lionhead Meatballs. One version is plain, usually steamed/cooked in broth and served with napa-cabbage, and one is braised in soy sauce. Typically, this dish calls for fatty pork I have settled for ground, which is more on the meaty side, though it has enough fat to be flavorful and succulent. It is known as the “red cooked” version!

Chinese Lionhead Meatballs


Here is what you will need

1 lb ground pork

1 slice of ginger

1 scallion

1 large egg

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

½ teaspoon white pepper

¼ teaspoon five spice powder

1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch

¼ cup of water

½ can of water chestnuts

Vegetable oil to fry with


For the sauce

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

2 slices ginger

2 scallions

2 teaspoons rock sugar

1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine

1 ½ tablespoons light soy sauce

¼ teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon oyster sauce

1 ¾ cups of water

1 teaspoon cornstarch

¼ teaspoon sesame oil

Baby bok choy


The all important how to

For the meatballs

Place the ground pork into a large mixing bowl. Add the minced ginger and scallion, egg, Shaoxing wine, light soy sauce, oyster sauce, white pepper, five spice powder, cornstarch, and water.

Mix everything in one direction for about 10 minutes, until the meat mixture comes to a paste like consistency. (This step is very important in making sure the meatballs have the right texture and don’t fall apart during frying).

Finely chop the water chestnuts. Once finely chopped, add to the meat mixture and continue to mix everything together for a further 5 more minutes. Use a rubber spatula to scrape everything together, it will be a very wet consistency.

Heat enough oil to submerge the meatballs in a small, deep pot to 350° F. Be sure there’s enough oil to cook the meatballs evenly, but that the oil will not overflow during frying. I used an outdoor fish fryer, saves the aroma not permeating the home.

Oiled hands work best. This stops the mixture from sticking. Divide the meat mixture into 8 or 9 equal portions then shape each into a ball. Carefully lower the meatballs, one at a time, into the heated oil and fry in batches (3 minutes per batch) until they’re evenly golden brown. Remove the part-cooked meatballs carefully and set to one side. Cook all meatballs.


Making the sauce and braising

Place 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil in a wok over a low heat. Add the ginger and white parts only of the scallions and cook for 1 minute. Then add the rock sugar, stir and cook until dissolved.

Add 1 tablespoon Shaoxing wine, 1 ½ tablespoons light soy sauce, 1/4 teaspoon dark soy sauce, 1 tablespoon oyster sauce and 1 ¾ cups water. Stir and bring the liquid to a boil. 

Once boiling, add the fried meatballs. Cover and cook for 12-15 minutes over medium/low heat, simmering them keeps the moisture inside, flip the meatballs during this time.

After simmering, there should be about 1 cup liquid left. Remove the meatballs from the liquid and arrange on your serving plate. 

Mix your cornstarch with a little cold water and pour carefully into the sauce to thicken. Once you achieve the consistency you are looking for stir in ¼ teaspoon sesame oil and the green parts of the scallions. When the scallions are slightly wilted, drizzle the sauce over the meatballs. And that’s it. These meatballs have a very different flavour but will for sure be a hit.

A couple of tips:

Don’t be tempted to skip the frying step in the recipe. The meatball mixture is very moist, and frying sets the shape of the meatballs, so they don’t fall apart during braising.

When dividing the meat into balls, try making 8 or 9, both very auspicious numbers within the Chinese culture. The number 8 in Chinese represents wealth and good fortune, while the number 9 represents longevity! 

Ian Leatt is general manager of Pegasus Publications and a trained chef.  Click here to learn more details about his new book.

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