We recently spoke to Betty Liu about her new cookbook, My Shanghai (Harper Design, March 2021), which spotlights the home-style Shanghainese food she grew up eating.
Organized by season, this handsome volume takes readers through a year in the Shanghai culinary calendar, with flavorful, deeply personal recipes that are daily fare for Betty and her family. It also provides a thorough introduction to the ingredients at the heart of the region’s cuisine and illuminates the area’s diverse communities and their food rituals.
Betty has been sharing recipes since 2015 on her award-winning blog bettysliu.com and worked as a food photographer – her talent is on display in My Shanghai, for which she did the styling and photography. Remarkably, she wrote the book while in medical school; she’s currently a general surgery resident training in Boston.
We spoke to Betty about how this book came about, the importance of seasonality in Shanghainese food and which pantry basics she recommends buying. She was also kind enough to share her recipe for scallion oil noodles.
How did the book come about and what were your aims in writing it?
When I left home for college, I really missed my mom’s home cooking. I moved to St. Louis, and it was a bit of a culture shock. I could access Chinese food – there were plenty of Chinese restaurants available, but they weren’t Shanghainese home-style food. So I started to cook, and I made it a personal mission to learn from my mom.
Of course, my mom never learned through recipes or cookbooks herself. She grew up watching her mom cook, and by helping in the kitchen. So, when she was trying to teach me, she would give vague instructions like “cook until it’s ready.” For someone who didn’t really have the intuition to cook without instructions, that wasn’t helpful for me! I observed her more, and ultimately I would jot down the steps, approximate measurements, etc., so that I could recreate those dishes at home.
And when I cooked more and more, I brought these recipes into my own kitchen, and cooked them to how I remembered, as well as to my own preferences. I wanted to put these in a book, not only to introduce people to the variety of Chinese regional cuisine (and highlight Shanghainese cuisine), but also to take down the barrier that cooking Chinese food is difficult. Once you have the basic pantry items, Chinese cooking is very doable and extremely forgiving!
Can you tell us a bit more about your decision to divide the book into seasons? How important is seasonality when it comes to eating in Shanghai (and the wider Jiangnan region more generally)?
Yes! It was one of the first organizational decisions I made. Seasonality is the very essence of Shanghainese food. So much of Shanghainese cooking is about highlighting the natural flavors of the produce or protein, without too many heavy sauces. In China, my grandparents and family would wake up very early to head to the local market and buy fresh produce in very small batches – really just to cook for the day. Everything was so, so fresh.
We found that the book’s structure – both the focus on the seasons and your detailed section on the Shanghainese pantry – spotlights the region’s ingredients. Was that something you intended to do when you set out to write the book?
Definitely. I knew that the Chinese pantry would be daunting and a barrier to people actually cooking the dishes in my book. To try to reassure my readers, I really wanted to share my thoughts on the ingredients, to provide context for them, so that they will eventually become pantry staples.
What, if anything, do you think people in the U.S. get wrong about Shanghainese food?
The biggest misconception about Shanghainese food is that it’s sweet. Compared to other regional cuisines such as Sichuan or Yunnan cooking, sure, it’s on the sweeter side. I admit I keep a little bowl of sugar next to my little bowl of salt by my stovetop, because we do use sugar liberally. However, to call it just sweet is too oversimplified. It’s more about balance.
As malls and high-rises replace Shanghai’s backstreets at a breakneck pace, do you think it will become harder to find the types of spots, usually smaller, family-owned joints, offering Shanghai cuisine, or ben bang cai (“local cuisine”)?
I think the people who live in Shanghai absolutely love ben bang cai, and as long as there are customers I think these little joints will exist. I won’t pretend to be familiar with the socioeconomics of these joints, but I hope they will persevere.
Is there anything that we missed?
Shanghainese cooking is very forgiving and open to substitutions! Start with pantry basics such as light soy sauce, dark soy sauce, black vinegar, and white pepper, and then you will be able to make a lot of these dishes.
Recipe: Scallion Oil Noodles
You haven’t experienced Shanghai until you’ve had a bowl of scallion oil noodles. It’s a quintessential old Shanghai dish, a humble, yet extremely satisfying, bowl of noodles. This dish reveals the secret of that complex umami flavor used in many of Shanghai’s signature dishes: scallion oil. Scallions are slowly fried in oil so that their flavor infuses it. This flavored oil serves as the base of the dish. By itself, the soy sauce–rock sugar mix makes a lovely, deep, sweet yet savory sauce, but it often needs something else – pork, chicken, eggplant, or loads of scallions – for additional flavor. Dried shrimp is an excellent addition that supplies an extra bit of umami. If you’re craving something with more protein, fry some ground pork in your scallion oil until browned and crisp, then turn off the heat and proceed with the recipe.
Note: You can also make scallion oil ahead of time. Quadruple the recipe below and follow the steps. Let it cool and pour it into a sterile jar; it will keep in the fridge for up to 1 month. Use it anytime to elevate any dish you’re making.
1½ teaspoons dried shrimp
6 to 8 scallions, cut into 1-inch (2.5-cm) segments
3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, such as canola or grapeseed oil
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
½ teaspoon black vinegar
1 tablespoon crushed rock sugar or granulated sugar
pinch of ground white pepper
½ pound (225 g) fresh Shanghai-style thin noodles, cooked to al dente (or 2 servings of any dried noodles. I’ve used soba and ramen noodles with great effect.)
1. Place the dried shrimp in a small bowl with hot water to cover and soak for 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry with a paper towel.
2. Smash the scallions with the side of a meat cleaver. Pat dry with a paper towel to avoid any water droplets from causing the oil to splatter during stir-frying.
3. Heat the oil in a well-seasoned wok over medium-low. Add the scallion segments and let them fry slowly, so they turn yellow without burning. Stir occasionally so the segments brown evenly. This slowly rendered-out flavor is essential to this recipe—be patient and let the toasty flavor infuse the oil. I usually let the scallions cook for 20 to 30 minutes, but for a deeper flavor cook them at a lower heat for longer, even up to 1 hour. I’ll often make big batches of this oil that I store in the refrigerator; for this recipe I use 3 tablespoons. Reduce the heat to low, add the shrimp, and cook for another 5 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, mix together the dark and light soy sauces, vinegar, and sugar.
5. Increase the heat to medium and immediately pour the soy sauce mixture into the wok. The sauce will bubble finely and foam (if it bubbles too much, your heat is too high) and begin to caramelize. Stir to dissolve the sugar and let simmer for 2 to 3 minutes to thicken. Turn off the heat. Add a pinch of white pepper. Add the cooked noodles to the wok and toss to combine. Divide the noodles between two bowls, making sure to scoop up the scallion segments.
From the book “My Shanghai” by Betty Liu. Copyright © 2021 by Betty Liu. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission. Click here to order your copy.
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Published on March 16, 2021