Lion's Head is a simple country dish made with meat and vegetables; yes, that's it. But what's with the name? The idea is that — OK, a little imagination would help here — a large meatball presented on top of a bed of braised cabbage, vaguely, resembles the head and mane of a lion.
Lion's Head is a very popular dish in modern-day Shanghai cuisine, even though it traces its origin to Yangzhou in eastern China. It is a slow-cooked dish, not one to be rushed because it takes time for the pork and cabbage to develop flavor. When you have an afternoon free, put some music on, pour yourself a glass of wine, put yourself at ease, and then get started in the kitchen.
*Note: Although Lion's Head is best made slowly, you can make this dish in a shorter amount of time by using a different cut of pork. I'd suggest center loin or pork loin, which is leaner and more tender than shoulder. But, be sure to only reduce oven cooking time to 30 minutes; you can choose to simmer the pot on stove at medium-low heat instead. Give it a try!
Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
In a small bowl, combine the soy sauce, wine, sugar, ginger, a good pinch of salt, and a couple rounds of ground black pepper. Add the combined seasoning and water chestnuts, if using, to the pork in a large bowl. Mix well and shape meat into 2- to 3-inch-diameter balls. Roll the meatballs in flour to give them a light coating.
Heat a large oven-safe cooking pot over medium-high heat. Add the oil. When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the meatballs. Let them cook for a couple of minutes before turning them over. Make sure to brown all sides and then remove them from the pot and set aside.
Continue with the same pot over medium-high heat; add the Napa cabbage. Season with a pinch of salt. Sauté for 2-3 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for 1 more minute.
Add the chicken broth to the Napa cabbage. Let the broth come to a boil, then add back the meatballs. Nestle the meatballs among the Napa cabbage. Cover the pot and place in the oven. Cook for 2 hours. Remove from the oven. Season with salt and pepper, to taste. Serve with rice, if desired.