Shizi Tou (Lion’s Head Meatballs 狮子头)
What is it?
Shizi tou are Chinese meatballs. Originally from the region of Yangzhou and Zhenjiang in Jiangsu Province, the lion’s head meatballs became a classic Shanghainese dish, following the influx of immigrants to the city.
The meatballs are made from minced pork (with an uneven ratio of fat to lean meat), and then braised in a mixture of soy sauce, sugar and sherry. In a method known (in Shanghai) as “red cooking”, they are cooked till tender. The dish is usually served in a clay pot to preserve the heat, along with napa cabbage that has been stewed in the same mixture as the meatballs.
Why is it famous?
Lion’s head was originally called ‘Sunflower Minced Meat’. It was believed that during the construction of the Grand Canal (which stretches from Beijing to Hangzhou) in the Sui Dynasty (589-618), Emperor Yang travelled to various points along it, including Yangzhou city, in today’s Jiangsu province. There, he was reportedly enamoured by several sights, one of which was a valley of sunflowers.
When he returned to his palace, he asked the chef to create dishes that would remind him of these sights. So the chef made a meatball that was deep-fried until golden on the outside, like sunflowers, before it is braised in a broth to get rid of the fat. The technique is to mince the fatty meat with lean meat into small bits so that the meat maintains a bit of chewiness even after it’s cooked.
With a little imagination, the large meatballs represent a lion, with the bed of green thought to represent the lion’s mane.
What do you need to know when ordering?
Sometimes the dish is served “white” (plain) or “red” (cooked in soy sauce). The white version is deemed the healthier option since it’s cooked in broth.
The red version, however, is much more popular amongst locals. Many restaurants in Shanghai also offer crab meat lion’s head, mixing hairy crab meat into the meatballs.
Where to eat it?
Laojishi Restaurant in Shanghai, 41 Tianping Road; Tel: 86-21-6282-9260); another alternative in Shanghai, Nanling Restsaurant, 168 Yueyang Road, near Yongjia Road, French Concession; Tel: 86-21-6433-0897).
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