Shi Zi Tou (Lion’s Head (Meatballs) )

I don’t have any particular childhood story for lion’s head meatballs, other than the fact that I remember eating the ones my grandma made, and the fact that I always make it with her special ingredient, which makes it not as traditional, but I really like it this way! Read along.

Two factors make my mouth water when I think of shi zi tou: well-seasoned meat, and tasty broth to go with it. I think most restaurants serve lion’s head with gooey cornstarch sauce, but I prefer a clean broth and fen si, or mung bean vermicelli, that can soak up some of that yummy broth.

It’s getting warmer, and the season for hearty braises will soon be gone, so make this while you can! My sister said “you totally need to post a shi zi tou recipe”, so this is for you, 姐!

lion's head

Shi Zi Tou
Lion’s Head (Meatballs)
Makes 8-10 very large meatballs

10 oz firm tofu, drained and gently squeezed of water
20 oz ground pork
1/4 cup soy sauce
1 tsp white pepper
2 Tbsp sesame oil
1 Tbsp wine
1/2 tsp fish sauce (totally optional- my little random add-in)
1 Tbsp minced ginger
1 stalk scallions, finely chopped
1 Tbsp corn starch
Salt to taste
1-3 Tbsp oil
1 lb napa cabbage, separated into leaves and roughly chopped
8-9 dried shiitake mushrooms, soaked in room temperature until softened (optional)
1 1/4 cup no sodium chicken or pork stock
100 grams 粉絲 [fensi / mung bean threads / mung bean vermicelli], soaked in room temperature water until pliable (optional)

1) Add drained tofu into a large mixing bowl, and break up into as tiny pieces as possible, using a fork or pastry cutter.

2) Add pork all the way through cornstarch, and mix well. Grab both chopsticks in your fist and use it to mix the meatball ingredients in circular motions until the mixture goes from clumps to more homogenous and sticky. The goal is to get the fat in the meat to help glue everything together.  The more fatty the pork, the more gluey and sticky of a mixture you’ll be able to obtain. Stir as well as possible, basically.

3) Take a small piece of the meatball mixture out and cook on a frying pan or microwave, to taste for saltiness. Add 1/4 tsp to 1/2 tsp of salt, mix, cook, and taste again (1/4 tsp for table salt, 1/2 for kosher).

4) Make your first two or three meatballs- I like each to be the size of my fist (Lion’s head, guys! Should be the most massive meatballs ever..)

5) Heat up a Dutch oven over medium heat, then when it is hot, add oil. Sear meatballs in batches, transferring seared meatballs to a bowl: Carefully add meatballs to the hot oil, making sure to only put enough meatballs that will comfortably and uncrowdedly fit in the space. Sear until golden brown on one side before rotating to expose another area of un-seared meat, trying to rotate evenly so that the meatball is more ball shaped than patty shaped. Depending on the leanness of your pork, you may need to add more oil between batches- you only need to add enough oil to coat the surface of the oven in a very thin layer.

6) Don’t throw away or wipe away any rendered fat or oil! After the last batch of meatballs has been seared and transferred to the bowl, there are 3 ways you can go about the napa:
a) Add the napa cabbage to the pot in batches, and sautee briefly until they have slightly browned/yellowed (Add more oil if necessary, between batches). Remove from the pot.
b) Add all the napa cabbage to the pot with the stock at the beginning, which will give you very very soft napa cabbage but a lovely sweetness to the broth.
c) Do half and half a and b.

7) Add meatballs back to the pot, followed by the mushrooms, stock, and napa, if you chose 6b) or 6c). Bring to a boil and simmer for 30-45 minutes. If you followed 6a or c), add reserved napa cabbage back to the pot 10 minutes before you want to serve it.

8) When you want to eat, add the soaked fensi to the pot, close the lid, and get your utensils and such ready. The fensi will cook almost immediately!

9) Enjoy with rice.

-Pork stock: Get a bunch of pork neck bones, and enough water to just cover the bones. Boil the bones until they turn brown, then dump the yucky bits and rinse the bones of additional yucky bits. Add clean water- enough to cover the bones plus 2 inches. Add one or two slices of ginger, bring to a boil, and simmer for 2-3 hours (enough heat that you can see several bubbles breaking the surface).
-If you wish, Shanghainese bok choy can be substituted for the napa cabbage. If you use bok choy, use half a pound only, and make sure to only cook the bok choy in the stock ever so briefly- about 5 minutes or less- until tender crisp.
-If you happen to have suan bai cai or 酸白菜 (basically Chinese sauerkraut), add a bunch of the pickling liquid and suan bai cai- it makes for an amazing sauce/base! I actually made these shi zi tou both ways- as shown in the recipe, as well as with mini shi zi tou and the suan bai cai method. Sadly, I left for vacation the next day, so I only had a picture with hideous fluorescent light, so I refrained from posting it =(
-If you are running low on time, you can make a bunch of small meatballs, of course. Don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone! You could call them cub head meatballs…


  1. Lydia Romanin

    Thanks for this recipe!! Making this for Nick. Is the funny thing about the fensi that they are mifen?

    • meggers616

      Yay! I hope everyone likes them, especially Nick. Let me know how it turns out! The funny thing about the fensi is that because I took this picture when it was cold, (already pitch dark outside when it was hot) they look like mifen 😉

  2. Lydia Romanin

    PS… I couldn't stop laughing at the end when you wrote cub head meatballs!!! Ahahaha

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