Photo/Illutration Large “lion’s head” meatballs (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)

Editor’s note: In the Taste of Life series, cooking experts, chefs and others involved in the field of food introduce their special recipes intertwined with their paths in life.

* * *

Meatballs are handy components to pack in a bento box.

“I had thought meatballs were always small,” said Yoshiki Igeta, owner-chef of a Sichuan cuisine restaurant.

That notion completely changed at a Chinese restaurant he began working at when he was 19 after graduating from a culinary school.

Yoshiki Igeta (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)

The meatballs that were popular at the restaurant were as large as an adult's fist, with each weighing about 160 grams. Although 5 to 6 kilograms of pork were used to make one batch, the meat did not make them fatty.

Instead, the meatballs were infused with the umami of the dried adductor muscle of scallops and dried shiitake mushroom.

Preparation begins by mincing pork belly or shoulder loin. The meat is thoroughly mixed so it absorbs the water content and softens.

After letting it sit in the fridge, the meat is formed into balls, then deep-fried and simmered in sauce. Although it is a dish that “requires a bit of work” with many steps, the preparation will run smoothly on your own once you get the hang of it.

As Igeta continued to make batches of about 20 each, the moves became automatic and eventually the dish became a part of him, he said.

He struck out on his own in 2005 when he was 34 and opened a restaurant in Tokyo’s Yoyogiuehara. Ever since, he has always listed the meatball on the menu in the hopes of wowing his customers.

Recently, even in Sichuan, the home of the cuisine, traditional flavors and procedures are said to be disappearing, as they lose ground to dishes that look good on social media. While running a few restaurants in Tokyo, Igeta decided to train in China to “keep up the traditional cuisine now facing a crisis and study once again.”

He repeatedly wrote to a fine restaurant in Chengdu, China, asking to train there. Even after he was turned down, he rented an apartment nearby and continued to ask directly until his apprenticeship was accepted in 2018.

He learned how to make the large meatball, written as “lion’s head” in Chinese, at this restaurant.

When the base seasoning is added, the meat is worked into a mass while mixing in water flavored with the aroma of green onion and ginger. He said he applauds the technique for turning out the softest meatball.

For home cooking, this week’s recipe with carefully selected ingredients involves steps where the meatballs are not deep-fried but pan-fried lightly before being simmered.

Born in Chiba Prefecture in 1971, Yoshiki Igeta is the owner-chef of a Sichuan cuisine restaurant. After training in Shanghai and Chengdu, among others, he opened Chugokusai Roshisen Pian-xiang in Tokyo’s Yoyogiuehara in 2005.


Main Ingredients (serves 4)

400 grams pork belly slices (buta-baraniku), 15 grams dried shiitake mushroom, 1 can of boiled scallop (hotate mizuni), some green vegetables, Seasoning A (2 pinches salt, 1/2 tsp sugar, 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 Tbsp Shaoxing wine [shokoshu], some pepper, 30 grams finely chopped green onion, 10 grams finely chopped ginger, 1 egg, a little more than 1 Tbsp katakuriko starch), Seasoning B (1 egg white, 1 Tbsp katakuriko starch), Seasoning C (2 Tbsp soy sauce, a little more than 1 Tbsp sugar, 100 ml Shaoxing wine, 400 ml chicken stock, 40 grams green onion, 10 grams ginger), some pepper, 1/2 Tbsp mixture of water and katakuriko starch, 1 tsp sesame oil

1. Reconstitute dried shiitake and dice to 5 mm thickness. Cut pork into width of 5 mm and place both in bowl.

2. To (1), add content of scallop can with liquid, Seasoning A and mix thoroughly. Leave in fridge for 30 minutes.

3. Mix Seasoning B until no lumps remain. Apply it to surface of (2) that has been quartered and formed into balls. Pour oil in frying pan, cook surface of the meatballs one by one and remove.

Thoroughly mix the ingredients. (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)

4. In the same pan, stir-fry green onion and ginger in Seasoning C. Add rest of Seasoning C. Add (3), place drop lid and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes.

Cook on low heat. (Photo by Atsuko Shimamura)

5. Remove green onion and ginger. Serve meatballs. Add pepper to sauce, thicken with mixture of water and katakuriko starch. Add sesame oil and pour on meatballs. Serve with green vegetables boiled with salt.

About 565 kcal and 2.3 grams salt per portion
(Nutrient calculation by the Nutrition Clinic of Kagawa Nutrition University)

* * *

From The Asahi Shimbun’s Jinsei Reshipi (Life Recipe) column