Ordinary dishes… beautiful names. Leave it to the Chinese to get jiggy with the poetry quotient when it comes to recipe titles. Think about it - do your dinners have fancy monikers like Butterflies Swarm The Peonies (sea cucumber with prawn, chicken, white fungus and water chestnut) or Xiang Yu The Conquerer Says Goodbye To His Concubine (a dish of chook and soft shell turtle)? Didn’t think so. But imagine if they did. “Come to the table! The Black Dragon Spitting Pearls (sea cucumber braised with quail eggs) is getting cold,” you’d be screaming. Or issuing threats like “if you don’t eat all your Desert Boat Sails On Green (camel foot with rape plant), there’s no Wind Lulling Cake for you”. Exhausting… but wouldn’t we all like to have our wind lulled by eating baked then deep-fried cake?
While they don’t exactly tumble off the tongue in translation, the idea behind such names was to make diners think happy thoughts; references to the natural world abound and are meant to take diners to another place. Maybe saying “look, I cooked A Set of Palms from Heaven and Earth” just sounds less confronting than “here’s a bunch of peacock feet for dinner- don’t eat the toenails”. Who knows.
Organic shapes, animals, flowers, butterflies and the seasons; these are common naming themes. Red, yellow, white and green (colours that have been shown to stimulate the appetite) are often employed too. As are lofty, lustrous words like ‘pearl’, ‘crystal’, ‘jadeite’, ‘brocade’ and ‘gold’, all suggestive of sumptuousness and expense. Then, there are Lion’s Head Meatballs (shizi tou 獅子頭), so called because the greens cooked with them are reckoned to resemble a lion’s mane and the ball itself, the head. A speciality of Shanghai and the area around it, there are plenty of variations, depending on the cook. The balls, for example, come in a variety of sizes, from ping pong petit to downright hefty. They’re either simmered gently in a clear, porky broth, sometimes with a prawn or two thrown in, or cloaked in a rugged, lip-smacking ‘red-cooked’ mixture of ginger, soy, cooking wine and sugar that’s a classic saucing combo in these Eastern Chinese parts.
While ‘meatball’ might suggest something v-e-r-y prosaic, there’s way more to these than a pile of pork (or beef, which is sometimes used) and dribbles of stock. There’s fat, for a start. Fat gives lion’s heads their lovely meltiness; there’s defo no viable ‘skinny’ version of these. They should rightly be made using hand-chopped pork, not mince. This makes for a finessed, light and soft texture; a good lion’s head will be so delicate it literally falls apart at the mere suspicion of a chopstick. Practically speaking, you might find mince a simpler option, unless you’re nifty with a pair of cleavers. Fine chunks of water chestnut, preferably fresh, provide some crunch, the greens give a healthy edge (bamboo shoots sometimes stand in) and that stock (don’t even THINK of using store-bought), is nutrient-rich ‘bone broth’ by any other name.
- 500 g (1lb 2 oz) hand-minced pork belly, or non-lean pork mince
- 60 g (2 oz / 1/3 cup) chopped, canned water chestnuts
- 1 egg, beaten
- 11/2 teaspoons Shaoxing rice wine
- 2 teaspoons oyster sauce
- 2 teaspoons light soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons finely chopped ginger
- 1 clove of garlic, finely chopped
- 2 1/2 tablespoons cornflour (cornstarch)
- 8 heads baby bok choy (pak choy), trimmed and halved lengthways500 g (1lb 2 oz) hand-minced pork belly, or non-lean pork mince
Combine the mince, water chestnuts, egg, wine, oyster sauce, soy sauce, ginger, garlic and cornflour in a bowl and combine. Using clean hands, knead the mixture for 5 minutes or until slightly elastic. Divide the mixture into four even-sized portions then, working with one portion at a time, form each into a large ball.
For the cooking liquid, combine all the ingredients in a saucepan large enough to hold the meatballs in a single layer, then bring to a gentle simmer. Add the meatballs and bring the liquid back to a gentle simmer. Cover the pan and cook over medium heat for 10 minutes, turning the meat balls once.
Add the bok choy, cover the pan then cook for another 15 minutes or until the meatballs are cooked through and bok choy is tender. Divide the liquid, meatballs and bok choy among large bowls and serve immediately.
Chicken and Pork Stock - Makes about 3 litres (101 fl oz/ 12 cups)
1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) chicken wings
1 kg (2 lb 3 oz) pork bones, cut into smallish pieces (have your butcher do this)
2 pigs trotters, cut in half lengthways (have your butcher do this)
5 cm (2 inch) piece of ginger, unpeeled and thinly sliced
5 cloves of garlic, peeled and bruised by bashing with the side of a knife
6 spring onions (scallions), trimmed and bruised
Wash the wings, pork bones and trotters under cold running water. Combine the rinsed meats with the remaining ingredients in a large stockpot and add enough cold water to cover. Bring slowly to the boil, skimming any impurities that rise to the surface, then reduce the heat to low. Simmer for 3-4 hours, adding water as required to keep the bones just covered and skimming the surface often. Strain the stock through a muslin-lined sieve into a large container, discarding the bones. Cool the stock then skim the surface of any fat. Refrigerate or freeze in zip lock bags until required.
Stock will keep for 3-4 days in the fridge, or up to 12 weeks in the freezer.
To find more info about Lion's Head Meatballs, and where to eat the best version in Shanghai, click the link below...
“Award-Winning Finalist in the “Travel: Guides & Essays” category of the 2017 International Book Awards”
Shanghai is exhilarating, dynamic and endlessly fascinating. But, when hunger strikes, where to start in a city with so much on its menu? Beautifully designed, sumptuously photographed and chock-a-block with invaluable dining information, Shanghai In 12 Dishes helps you cut to the chase, culinarily speaking. Continued below...