CHINESE CUISINE IS as varied and vast as the country itself, but many Americans only know one version: the sweet and deep-fried riffs on Cantonese cuisine that were adapted to suit their palates in the twentieth century. For those familiar with Shanghainese cuisine, the dominant association is soup dumplings, or bao, steamed dough enclosures housing fragrant meat or vegetable fillings. But there is so much more to the food of Shanghai, one of the world’s most populous cities, and for writer and photographer Betty Liu, author of the new cookbook “My Shanghai,” it’s personal.
Liu’s parents grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. “Cooking wasn’t fancy,” she writes. “There were no expensive kitchen appliances. Instead, they ate and cooked simply, as had been the norm for centuries.” Her mother learned to cook in a communal kitchen, developing instincts unhampered by exact measurements or written recipes.
Liu grew up in Oregon enjoying her mother’s Shanghainese home cooking, but didn’t realize how good she had it until she left for college and couldn’t find anything that came close. Pangs of nostalgia inspired her to observe her mother in the kitchen and try to set down on paper the proportions and techniques that went into the dishes she loved. She began collecting the recipes on a blog, eventually writing and photographing this stunning cookbook — all while in medical school on a surgical rotation, a fact the reader has to take in a few times to believe.
Friendships were forged over her mother’s cooking, 'a tangible, edible comfort of home away from home.'
The recipes range from basic (soy-pickled radish) to uncommon (sweet osmanthus-stuffed lotus root), from simple (seasoned steamed eggplant) to truly aspirational, like the beautiful bundles of Shanghai shaomai (pleated, open-face dumplings) that Betty’s mother would freeze and send her back to college with in St. Louis. “Any awkwardness with new neighbors melted away,” Liu writes, “when the aroma of the steaming shaomai wafted into the hallway and drew them into her room.” Friendships were forged over her mother’s cooking, “a tangible, edible comfort of home away from home.”
The recipes in “My Shanghai” are introduced with texts sharing insights into Liu’s family food philosophy, stories about her experiences traveling and eating in China, and occasional asides about the grueling yet rewarding process of putting together this book during med school. A recipe for a pigs’-feet soup, for example, opens with a passage about combining the two endeavors: “instead of practicing my suturing skills on banana skins or chicken thighs, I bought two trotters for about two dollars, practiced, then made pork trotter and soybean soup.”
Shanghai, once a fishing village, sits in the Yangtze River Delta, and the river runs through the city “in an intricate weave of streams and runoffs.” As a result, the cuisine features fresh fish and vegetables grown on the fertile surrounding land. Here, seasonality is a given. “What’s on a dinner table is dictated by what is available in the market,” Liu writes. The flavors are milder than in some Chinese cuisines, with less emphasis on spice and more on bringing out the essence of ultra-fresh ingredients, boosting intensity with aromatics and condiments.
Though the seaport city is known as a bustling cosmopolitan center, “My Shanghai” focuses little on the dynamism of urban life there. Rather, the personal texts, methodical recipes, and inviting images combine to draw the reader into a tradition of home cooking as warm as the aroma of freshly steamed shaomai. The book is divided by seasons but also features a chapter on street food, which includes travel photos alongside mouth-watering recipes for morning pork bao, greens bao, scallion pancakes, and stuffed sticky rice rolls.
For the home cook, Liu’s introduction to this cuisine is a standout because she painstakingly walks readers through the building blocks of its techniques and flavors. Dishes that might be intimidating are made accessible with step-by-step instructions and Liu’s light prose, with her informative, sentimental, and funny turns keeping it all highly entertaining. Those who aren’t familiar with cooking Shanghainese food can trust that the effort required to procure unfamiliar ingredients and prepare new dishes pays off handsomely; you won’t believe you made these gourmet flavors come alive at home.
Betty’s recipe for Shanghai cold sesame noodles, from the summer section of “My Shanghai,” is a perfect warm-weather, busy-day dish, a cooling but satisfying dinner for nights when it’s too hot to turn on the oven.
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Betty Liu Photographer
Betty Liu is a food photographer, author, and general surgery resident based in Boston, Massachusetts.