lion’s head stew is one of those things that i never really appreciated growing up. in my mind, it was really a rather humble dish that my mom made when she ran out of ingredients in the fridge and had to cobble something together. a bunch of meatballs stewed over napa cabbage. nothing really that special. (although if you really squint your eyes, the meatballs surrounded by cabbage, kinda look like the mane of a lion — hence the dish’s name).
however, in my encounters with the dish later in life, i began to realize that lion’s head stew was a bit more than a throwaway dish. in college, i recall reading ming dynasty texts, where the dish appeared in many banquet dining lists. i always thought it odd that a dish as humble as meatballs in napa cabbage would make it onto grandiose chinese banquet tables. i settled on the explanation that electric meat grinders didn’t exist in the ming dynasty and so the meat was in fact chopped by hand. the amount of work involved with chopping the meat with cleavers, thereby qualified it for the banquet circuit.
many years ago, when i lived in a tiny cramped nyc apartment, my friend F came over and cooked lion’s head stew for Y and i. Y and i thought his version was rather good. F revealed himself to be a bit of a lion’s head stew connoisseur. he critiqued his own dish from a myriad of angles. but, from him i learned that the meatballs were supposed to be both fragrant and tender, and that the soup had to be flavorful and thickened with the starch of the napa cabbage.
the other day, i picked up cecilia chang’s book The Seventh Daughter and flipped to her recipe on page 123. she makes her version with bean thread vermicelli, something i’ve never seen in lion’s head stew before. i simplified her recipe quite a bit and replaced the pork with ground turkey. i was delightfully surprised in how it turned out. for me, the true star of the dish, though, were not the meatballs; it was the napa cabbage — soft, stewed, imbued with the flavours of chicken broth and meatballs — that truly sung. while the dish might not qualify for a place on the tables of grand banquet halls in this modern age of electric appliances, it definitely qualified for the chinese comfort food prize.
Lion’s Head Stew
Napa Cabbage ~1.5 lbs, cut into 1 inch strips
Ground Turkey 1 lb (traditionally, made with ground pork instead)
Scallions 2 stalks minced, white part only
Ginger 1 tbsp minced
Salt 2 tsp for the meatballs, 1 tsp for the cabbage
Soy Sauce 1 tbsp
Rice Wine 1 tbsp
Sesame oil 1 tbsp
Pepper 1 tsp
Veg Oil 2 tbsp
Chicken Broth 2 cups
- Combine turkey, scallion, ginger, salt, soy sauce, rice wine, sesame oil and pepper in a bowl. Mix the ingredients until well combined.
- With your hands, roll the meat mixture into meatballs about 2 inches in diameter. I got about 7.
- Heat the oil in a pot ( i used my 5 qt dutch oven) and brown the meatballs on both sides over high heat.
- Then, remove the meatballs from the pot and set aside.
- In the same pot, layer in the napa cabbage. You should place the root ends of the cabbage on the bottom of the pot and the leafier layers towards the top.
- Arrange the meatballs back on top of the cabbage. Add the remaining 1 tsp of salt. Pour in the chicken stock.
- Bring the stew to a boil and then turn down the heat to maintain a simmer until the cabbage has softened, and the stock reduced by 1/3 to 1/2.