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Sep 9, 2012 08:35 PM

Shanghai "Lion's Head" Hits the Big Time

It's always amusing when a foreign dish is perceived to have achieved crossover appeal. Indians assume gringos pine for samosas. More than one Colombian restaurant with no other English signage touts "our famous 'plato montanero'". Dow Myu (sp?) used to be a hip Cantonese order, but now they expect gringos to know it. Pad Thai, mofungo, tapas, and sashimi are all widely perceived by their host countries to have crossed over (Ovaltine, however, remains an insider/extremely hip order in most Chinese cafes).

I've had two Lion's Heads this month in an otherwise pandering suburban Chinese-American restaurants. The first was pretty good. They hadn't used tender throat meat, they hadn't mixed in tofu for softness, and they were timid with the star anise, but it was generally pretty authentic. Tonight's was served buried under a pile of glass noodles, slices of roast pork, and bits of sauteed chicken, had no star anise at all, but was definitely in the shape of a meatball.

Hey, the gringos like Lion's Head! Now we know!

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  1. Lion's Head (Meatballs) is a classic clay pot dish I've been enjoying in NYC's Chinatown for decades. I used to love the version made at Goody's which included Napa Cabbage. Coupled with the House Pan Fried Tofu and XLB Soup would set me back a whopping $20.

    1. The more mainstream they become the better. I love them and eat them out various places as well as make them at home, but throat meat? Say what? Have never seen a recipe in English or Chinese specifying this.

      10 Replies
        1. re: DeppityDawg

          It seems ipsedixit's post (amongst a long subthread) has been deleted. Ipse postulated that it really is "pork neck meat" (豬頸肉).

          1. re: huiray

            Actually the true definition of 豬頸肉, while "pork neck meat" in Chinese, is actually closer to pork jowl.

            This diagram explains the approx location a bit better (item # 1)


            In Taiwan they market this as Matsuzaka Pork 松阪豬肉 / 松阪肉. Of course there's Japanese Matsuzaka Beef (very famous) but MP appears to be a gimmick name somone came up with to sell more product (although the meat in itself is intensely marbled and extremely delicious when grilled). Or you can boil thin slices of it and serve it in sesame oil, soy sauce, and lots of chopped garlic. Insanely good.

              1. re: K K

                You learn something new every day, thank you KK.

                1. re: buttertart

                  You can say the Chinese (and the Cantonese) come up with fancy names for cuts of beef and pork many think don't exist, but they do, and for specific dishes. While pork belly is raging across the USA as the biggest hipster invention, pork "neck meat" has been the rage in HK and TW for over 10 years.

                  Just found out there's a specific part of the pig called 豬天梯, which loosely translates to pig ladder or pig staircase (wha? Pigs don't have ladders!) but is actually the upper jaw side soft bones. Here's a Cantonese clip of a stir fry softbone dish


                  where the chef explains that the exterior of the softbone resembles a set of stairs.

                  1. re: K K

                    Very interesting! Everything but the squeal.

                    1. re: K K

                      So it could be translated as "Pig Stairway to Heaven"?

                      1. re: Tripeler

                        Yep, the lyrics ring true here:

                        "'Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings."

                        "If there are staircase ridges in your softbones, don't be alarmed now,"
                        "It's just some guanciale for the stir fry."

            1. I loved Wing's Kitchen's version in Boston.

              All this talk of "throat meat" and "penetrating deeply" reminds me of a different sort of "Lion's Head meatball."

              1 Reply
              1. re: nsenada

                You mean a.k.a. "Two nuts (or meatballs) on a chin"?

              2. There are lots of mainstream Shanghainese dishes that are growing in popularity amongst foreigners/westerners (particularly the pork based ones) and those not familiar with the cuisine beyond the famous ones. In many online reviews, if it is not XLB, it's Lion's Head, or both are typically ordered together.

                Shen Jian Bao is quickly gainly popularity. 紅燒元蹄, or stewed pork hock/pork "pump" is catching up. Tung Po Pork too, but that's a Hangzhou specialty, but often shows up in Shanghainese restaurants. It's generally hard not to like fatty pork.

                Dishes that have yet to become more mainstream and heavily ordered by non Chinese but are good solid staples:

                - drunken chicken (or drunken prawns, which can be a treat if cooked at the table, where you them expire alcohol and dance for your dinner)

                - vegetarian goose, kao fu (some say that's a good measurement of a Shanghianese restaurant, is the texture done correctly? Do they slice it with a knife or hand tear it which is the more authentic preparation)

                - 糖醋小排 (the precursor to Cantonese sweet & sour pork, Shanghainese style with spareribs, almost like Wuxi paigu).

                - 清炒蝦仁 (stir fried shrimp, in lots of oil, no batter, the end result should be an almost crystalline appearance). This is a de facto favorite dish amongst Hong Konger expat types who frequent Shanghainese restaurants, along with salted pork belly veggie claypot rice and XLB. When the shrimp is dipped in a side of black vinegar, it tastes a lot better.

                Very popular in Hong Kong Shanghainese restaurants but sadly not in any that I've seen in California, 薰蛋 (smoked egg), served in halves with the center just a cut above the poached/63 degree egg, with a delicate jello textured yolk.

                The "pork neck meat" would satisfy the recommended Chinese receipe for Lion's Head, if assuming a minimum of 6 parts fat to 4 parts lean ratio.

                8 Replies
                1. re: K K

                  Great list, K K! I love all those dishes!

                  I was referring not to dishes outsiders have come to appreciate (which is, indeed, a growing list), but dishes that Chinese-American restaurants (not pure Chinese ones) believe (right or wrong) to be so massively known/loved (not just by chowhoundish outsiders, but by the mainstream) that they NEED to add them to the menu....even if restaurants themselves have zero understanding of the dish (per the second Lion's Head I described in my original posting).

                  It's a subtler dynamic, and one that fascinates me!

                  1. re: K K

                    Slightly tangential, but I do remember listening to the lady owner of a Shanghainese restaurant (now closed) complaining about how the chef was taking too much time to hand chop the right ratio of fatty to lean pork. The result was worth though, imho -- very tender and a smoother than usual consistency with a slightly spongy and springy quality, but one that didn't cross into the those smaller bouncy meatballs that one sometimes find in Chinese supermarkets.

                    And I also love the killer Zhenjiang black vinegar with those prawns.

                    I had a vague inkling that fu1 rong2 dishes ("lotus" aka egg whites) e.g. prawn or abalone stir fried with egg whites were from the Huaiyang tradition, but have never confirmed. Egg fooyong is certainly mainstream but is it more Cantonese in origin?

                    1. re: limster

                      Somehow I think of foo young har or foo young hai as being associated more with Hainanese places, especially British Colonial – Hainanese establishments... Although the origins may be Cantonese and before that sort-of Shanghainese? (Maybe)

                      1. re: limster

                        I haven't done any research on egg foo yung, but I think it has Cantonese traces to it, if not Cantonese American. Chinese section of wikipedia page says it's Cantonese and evolved as it went into Europe, and cites some reference to a person who had it in Yunan during the Qing dynasty era and coined the name as the man iterated on the receipe. Could also be synonymous with the fake crab (made with egg whites and fish paste, vinegar, pepper) served to the Empress of China (Qing Dynasty) since she was landlocked and couldn't eat crab, that evolved to a Shanghainese cuisine offering.

                        You've nailed the typical Chinese family (and traditionalist Chinese restaurants that do certain pork dishes) secret to great toothsome texture....pork needs to be chopped by hand, particularly for Northern style boiled dumplings/jiaozi and XLB. For pork patties, one must also hand mix, and even pick up mixture by hand and slapping it back down on the mixture bowl to create more elasticity (to the bite). For making stuff like Chiu Chow style fishballs or mass producing Hsinchu style Taiwanese meatballs (gong wan), it's all done my machine mixer these days, although for fishballs it's also the squeezing by hand technique to create the ball from the mix.

                        All these finer details are sadly skipped many times in favor of pumping out dishes quicker.

                        For XLB (and other dumpings) they say use pork upper back leg. Some Mainland Chinese websites that published Lion Head receipes call for pork front leg, but I'm curious where they get the imbalanced fat to meat ratio if not the belly or the neck, unless they mix in fatty pork from other parts (which is possible).

                        Jim, it is fascinating how some restaurants that aren't specializing in such dishes, now have to offer them to cater to demand. While I don't normally step foot in American Chinese places to see what's going on, I have noticed that a lot of Northern noodle and boiled dumpling restaurants, whose origins are as far away from Shanghai as possible, give in to market demand and put XLB on the menu (and of course green onion pancake).

                        I'm not a huge fan of Lion's head renditions in my area, mostly because many places don't do it right (even the ones highly revered by foodettes and local press), or only offer the stewed prep, or the rendition is a case of mistakened identify or whether it thinks itself as a cassrole with diluted stewed sauce.

                        1. re: K K

                          "...pork needs to be chopped by hand..."
                          Like this?

                          I think a major "feature" of traditional Chinese cooking that has spotty appreciation in the US (per Jim Leff's area of speculation) concerns "home-style" dishes such as were discussed in that subthread in that thread I just mentioned.

                          1. re: K K

                            K K, great point on XLB. That indeed is another example of a dish perceived as a confirmed gringo crossover which enterprising Chinese-American restaurateurs have on their radar. There, as with Lion Head, it's made by places with extremely little concept of what a true XLB is, with results that are pretty laughable. They just sort of make it up.....just as much Chinese-American cuisine was made up on-the-fly.

                            I think of the culture of 20th century Chinese-American restaurants as a Darwinian petri dish, where restaurateurs were constantly spinning out ideas to see what would appeal. Few of the chefs were actual chefs, so it's not that they were pandering to American taste. They themselves didn't have much in the way of Chinese taste! They were just hard working folks trying desperately to make a buck, trying to figure out what would sell, and sticking with whatever worked. Pure capitalism! The result: an entirely new cuisine.

                            In fifty years, ALL such places will make XLB and LIon's Head. And those things will have evolved into something not the least bit resembling the originals, but (like better renditions of egg rolls and General Tso) tasting surprisingly good when made by guys with at least a spark of talent.

                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              Lots of regional Chinese and Cantonese foods have incredible popularity and status across the world, but some items are destined for hipster status simply because they are talked, blogged, reviewed about and become representative standard orders for people who don't dive deep enough to try or appreciate the good stuff...this is even true for Asian and Chinese Americans.

                              Pretty sad when I see some people go to a Northern dumpling house and they fall for the XLB gimmick. But businesses of course see that as a way to make a few extra bucks. Can't really do any worse than some old style dim sum Cantonese joint in North America trying the old style dim sum restaurant XLB...thick skins, small meatball with no juice oozing out of it whatsoever (forget even about "soup"), and the most laughable is poor quality red vinegar as a dip sauce. Luckily this style is not as prevalent (but still exists I'm sure).

                              You'll see XLB at many regional Chinese restaurants as well, at least in my area. Sichuanese and Beijing style restaurants for example....can't get away from it, it helps to bring customers through the door. Once in a while you might even find a version that's really good, but it's rare. Some are smart enough not to call it XLB in Chinese, but tang bao or guan tang bao, but in English it's still the same.

                              While nowhere near XLB or Lions Head status, Chongqing (Sichuan) style red hot chili peppers fried spicy chicken wings, is already destined for hipster status, if not a crossover to mainstream (it already has)...perhaps neck in neck with Shandong/Korean Chinese style honey spicy chicken wings in wet sauce. Cumin lamb, no matter what region of China the restaurant's cooking represents, is another one.

                          2. re: limster

                            Limster, yes, and the mixing in of tofu is yet another trick for achieving extra luxurious tenderness (e.g. in lion's head). Like the use of throat/neck meat, and the hand-chopping, and the painstaking balancing of fatty-to-lean, it's not a step talked about much, but the combination of all these painstaking measures is what makes a great lion's head so much more than just some meatball.