Though Lions Head is not a vegetarian dish you may be relieved to know big game hunting is not on the agenda here either. It doesn't include any instructions along the lines of first catch your lion. I am not that brave.
It is a Chinese dish that is poetically named describing the appearance of these beautiful bowls of food. As soon as I read the recipe in Mrs Chiangs Szchewan Cooking I could picture it - big scented dumplings of minced pork given little sparkles of crunch with chopped water chestnuts floating in stock strewn with shreds of cabbage and carrots and crinkled black mushrooms and laces of cellophane noodles. In my mind's eye all these elements came together into a gentle rendering of a lions head. And I wanted to make it.
My biggest mission in the preparation was finding fresh water chestnuts. I have only ever used tinned ones and, apart from anything else was unsure what they actually looked like (in the wild!). I headed to Chinatown, scanned the shelves of fresh produce in Loon Moon and was pleased to see a label reading 'water chestnuts'. It was in front of a pile of plastic bags in each of which were vacuum packed a dozen or so dark brown balls that looked just like chestnuts. Who'd have thought. It turns out they are in fact the underwater corm of a variety of water grass. Their most magical characteristic is that they retain their texture, even when cooked. They are easy to peel and easy to chop and are well worth searching out.
8 large dried black mushroom
1 package - 2oz dried cellophane noodles
4 spring onions, chopped into tiny pieces the size of a match head
2 inch piece of ginger, chopped more finely than the spring onions
6 fresh water chestnuts, peeled and chopped to the size of match heads
500g minced pork
2 tbspns soy sauce
1 tbspn sesame oil
2 egg whites
1 tspn szchewan peppercorns, roasted and ground
1 tspn salt
1/2 large head of Chinese cabbage, cut into 2cm shreds
2 small carrots, peeled and cut into matchsticks
1/4 cup peanut oil
Wash the mushrooms very carefully under cold running water then soak them in a bowl with 1 cup of boiling water for half an hour. They will swell quite a lot, so don't do as I did and be tempted to use a few more.
Put the dried cellophane noodles into another bowl and soak in 2 cups of boiling water.
Put the pork in a bowl with the chopped spring onions, ginger and water chestnuts as well as the soy sauce, sesame oil, egg whites, ground roasted Szchewan pepper, salt and cornflour and mix well.
Drain the mushrooms, reserving the soaking liquid. Cut off the hard stem and cut any very large ones in halves.
Heat the wok or pan - I used a pan for this - for 10 seconds over a high flame then add the oil. It will be hot enough to cook with when the first tiny bubbles form and a few small wisps of smoke appear. When it is ready add the carrots and mushrooms and stir fry for 30 seconds then add the cabbage shreds, stirring carefully till they start to collapse. cook for about 3 minutes before adding the reserved mushroom liquid and enough extra water to make 4 cups of liquid. Bring it to the boil over a high flame.
While you are waiting for it to boil, make the meatballs. Use a wet spoon and your hands to shape the meat mixture into balls about the size of large plums. You should get about 10. Place the meatballs on top of the cabbage and cover the pan. As soon as the liquid is boiling heavily, reduce the heat and let the meatballs simmer for 45 minutes. Then remove them from the pan into a bowl.
Drain the cellophane noodles and rinse thoroughly under cold water then add to the simmering soup. Taste the liquid and add salt if it needs it. Return the balls to the pan and simmer for 2 minutes before serving into large bowls. Add a dash of sesame oil and consume with enormous pleasure.
This was a little more complicated than I anticipated for a Monday supper but we ate the other half Tuesday with no more effort required than reheating so it was worth it. It was a wonderfully subtle soup and it will go into my repertoire for sure.