No, this is not some exotic concoction made from (God forbid), the head of a lion. Rather, it's a delectable Chinese stew comprised of largish meatballs made from ground pork nestled in and covered by leaves of napa cabbage, immersed in a seasoned broth and cooked in a clay pot. Presumably, the meatballs resemble the head of lion, with the napa cabbage constituting the 'mane.' Just sayin'!
I believe the dish originated in Yangzhou and eventually became a fixture in Shanghai cuisine. Mom never made this dish when EE & I were kids, but I've tried it a couple times in recent years at some local LA Chinese restaurants. Really delish! The key is to make sure the meatballs aren't tough - must be a really nice, tender, moist consistency. After perusing all my Chinese cookbooks, I realized the common word of wisdom was to take your aggression out on this sucker - i.e., you have to throw the ground meat with gusto against the side of the bowl for several minutes in order to tenderize the mixture. Woohoo!
Anyhoo, it's best cooked in a clay pot, but if you don't have one, an oven-proof casserole with lid will do just fine. Great served with steamed white rice, and (like so many stewed dishes), tastes even better the next day.
2 lbs. ground pork
Ginger-Scallion water: 1 cup water, 3 large peeled ginger slices, 3 chopped scallions, blended until smooth in a food processor
1 3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 tbsp. rice wine
1 tbsp. cornstarch
1 tsp. sesame oil
2/3 cup cornstarch
1 medium head of napa cabbage (save 3-4 large leaves to cover the stew), cut into 1" slices
1 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. soy sauce paste
2 tbsp. regular soy sauce
8 dried shiitake mushrooms, rehydrated in hot tap water, de-stemmed & halved
4 cups chicken stock (I use 2 tbsp. of Totole chicken base with 4 cups water)
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Place the shiitake mushrooms in a medium bowl and cover with hot tap water; let sit about 30 minutes or until mushrooms are rehydrated. Remove, drain, de-stem & halve the mushrooms. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, use your hand to mix together pork, ginger-scallion water, eggs, 1 3/4 tsp. salt, pepper, rice wine, 1 tbsp. cornstarch, and sesame oil, stirring together in one direction (clockwise), until well blended. Pick up the meat mixture and throw against the side of the bowl - keep doing this about 2-3 minutes and it will tenderize the meat.
3. In a medium bowl or large measuring cup, stir together 4 cups chicken stock, soy paste, soy sauce, and sugar. Set aside.
4. Shape mixture into 8 meatballs. Place 2/3 cup of cornstarch on a plate or shallow bowl. Coat the meatballs with the cornstarch.
5. Heat about 1/2 cup of canola oil in a saute pan over high heat. Brown meatballs on all sides (you may have to cook in two batches if pan is too crowded). Remove to paper towels to drain.
6. Line bottom of the clay pot or casserole with sliced napa cabbage. Top with the meatballs & halved shiitake mushrooms, then pour in reserved stock until it almost reaches the top of the pot (save any leftover stock to add later, if it reduces too much in the pot). Place the reserved napa cabbage leaves over the meatballs, cover the pot, and place it on a foil-lined baking sheet. Braise for 2 1/2 - 3 hours.
7. Serve with rice, if desired.