Legends: Lion's Head meatballs

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 08 November, 2012, 9:46am

The Sui dynasty (589-618) may have been short-lived, but it made two great contributions to the Chinese way of life.

The Lion's Head pork meatball, with its origins in the palaces of the dynasty's Emperor Yang, is only the second most important of these. Yang is best known for combining the various parts that became China's Grand Canal, stretching from Beijing to Hangzhou. During the construction of the Grand Canal, he 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.

At a time when most meats where slow-braised in whole cuts or barbecued, the chef did something rather revolutionary: he minced the meat so he could create a pattern out of the lean and fatty parts, rolled them into meatballs and fried them until they became golden on the outside, like sunflowers. Due to the relative complexity of the dish, it is said that it remained as a special banquet dish reserved for royalty.

During the Tang dynasty (618-907), which followed, this dish remained popular for special occasions. When Li Chongyi, the governor of the state of Xun hosted a banquet, the officials praised him for his achievements and said he was as fierce as a lion. Some say that when Li was in battle, he flew flags with the emblem of a lion to represent his army. Either way, one of the guests said they should name one of the night's dishes after him, and they chose the meatball, which they felt looked like a lion's head.

The dish is seen as a Yangzhou invention and a classic of Huaiyang cuisine (of which Shanghainese is a part). It is usually served deep-fried, then braised in a sugar and soy sauce, or poached in a clear broth.