A good cookbook offers an invitation in which home cooks are asked to try recipes and immerse themselves in the scents and flavours of someone else’s food, stories, and traditions. I’m sure it could go without saying — food is deeply personal and, cookbooks which are rooted in personal experiences tend to be the richest and most delicious. Lately I’ve been cooking from Betty Liu‘s My Shanghai — a cookbook in which she chronicles her parent’s journey from Shanghai, China to Oregon as well as her own connection to her cultural roots. The recipes demonstrate that there are “taste memories” just as surely as there is “muscle memory.” There is a beautiful poignancy to the way in which Liu expresses her taste memories.
As I read through her introduction, I knew what she meant when she talked about feeling a “desperate nostalgia for [her] mother’s cooking” as these were feelings I experienced when I moved across country for school, and I missed the comfort of eating food cooked with love and those familiar tastes of home. Unlike with the previous generations, Liu set about taking recipes that had been passed down in an oral tradition and immortalizing them in a book. Liu is the loving custodian of her family’s culinary traditions. As she says in her introduction, “Food as a language of love and welcome,” it is the hospitality of her recipes that she offers home cooks love and welcome. “Food is deeply entwined with pride, respect, and welcome in Chinese culture” and, as I cooked from Liu’s book, I could both feel the pride and respect she has for her family food. And, while Shanghainese cuisine is vast, what Liu shares in My Shanghai is the home-style Shanghainese food that she grew up eating and that is part of her family’s tradition.
Beautifully photographed, Liu’s My Shanghai is part travelogue, cookbook, and personal memoir. The book is organized into two main parts — first an explanation of the culinary roots of Shanghainese cooking, techniques, pantry essentials, and equipment, then Liu offers her recipes. The recipes are divided into 6 chapters — Autumn, Winter, Spring, Summer, Street Food, and Core Recipes. And, while this is not a vegetarian/vegan/plant-based cookbook, I found many vegetarian recipes to try and, even a few recipes that with slight substitutions (for the pork lard, which is used pervasively throughout the book, as well as for the dried shrimp), I enjoyed with my vegetarian family. Liu is generous with her recipes — “Home cooking is just that: food cooked at home, and thus open to adjustments according to your individual tastes. Instead of looking at these as rigid recipes, I hope you’ll think of them as a starting point to begin developing your own traditions and making the food truly yours.” From the heart of Liu’s kitchen and cookbook, she offers home cooks delicious recipes as well as the roots of Shanghainese cuisine.
My gripe with Liu’s book is that some of the recipes don’t make enough! The food is delicious, and I’ll tell you now that you’ll need to double some of the recipes. Take the Cōng Yóu Bing (Scallion Pancakes) — when I made this recipe, I felt like there was going to be a fight over the extra pancake. I had one, my husband had one, and since my daughter was video chatting with my sister, I set hers aside which left one more on the plate. This scallion pancake was split between my husband and I and then, like the monsters we are, we started to eye up my daughter’s. Having eaten scallion pancakes before, Liu’s version is so crispy and delicious! I agree with her: what sets hers apart is the use of you su (“oil paste”) which is slathered across the dough before rolling it up and flattening it into a pancake. Another recipe that I suggest that you double is the recipe for Cōng Yóu Bàn Miàn (Scallion Oil Noodles). I made this last week when my daughter was home from school on a PD day and, after I’d served everyone a bowl of noodles, my husband came from his office looking for another helping, then being crestfallen to discover we’d eaten it all! The only thing that soothed the disappointment was the fact I also made her recipe for Qiāng Bing (Yeasted Scallion + Sesame Bing) — a fluffy, scallion-filled, yeasted dough that you coat in sesame seeds and fry in a lidded skillet.
A recipe that is now seamlessly part of my weekly cooking rituals is for making Dòu Jiāng (Soy Milk). A beverage enjoyed as a morning drink in China, which Liu likens to the ubiquity of the American morning cup of coffee, was easy to make. Similar to making other types of nut milks, the soybeans are soaked over night, then drained, rinsed, blended, strained, and then, unlike methods for making nut milks, the soy milk is then cooked on the stovetop. Compared to other homemade plant-based “milk,” I found the soy milk to be creamy and so lovely when warmed and slightly sweetened. I also followed her recipes to make Yóu Tiáo (Chinese Fried Crullers) to accompany her recipe for Tián Dòu Jiāng (Sweet Soy Milk). We really enjoyed these recipes on Saturday morning and, I found that while I’m not that adept at deep-frying food, these crullers were not that difficult to make and, I really appreaciated the process photos she added to the recipe. I found they helped me through the forming and cooking of the crullers.
I’ve been enjoying seeing what other people have been making from My Shanghai and, after seeing people post about trying her Jiu Cài Hé Zi (Chive Boxes), I decided to make them for my family. These dumplings are filled with cooked garlic chives, egg, vermicelli, and dried shrimp. As with all the dough recipes within My Shanghai, the dumpling wrapper dough for this recipe was so supple and smooth. I used her suggestion to sub vegetable oil for the pork lard in the dough and when making the filling, I subbed mushrooms and vegan fish sauce for the dried shrimp. These “giant palm-sized dumplings” are a satisfying snack or after-school treat.
Since the weather here in Halifax is still quite brisk and although we’re technically into spring already, I still feel that this shoulder season (not quite spring) is the perfect time to enjoy soups. A bowl of soup takes the chill from the bones and offers a bit of warming comfort on dreary spring days when the snow has changed into rain. On one of these grey days, I took to making the Shàng Hai Dà Hún Tun (Shanghai Big Wontons) — in which I filled each wonton with a mixture of tofu (instead of pork) and “Asian greens” (instead of Shepherd’s Purse) from my local farmer’s market. I found myself following along with Liu’s process photos for filling and sealing the wontons and, I appreciate how they are made in a large batch, then frozen for future use. A quick meal to pull from the freezer that’s both warming and hearty — one that my family and I really enjoyed!
There is something special when someone shares their stories and memories framed with heartfelt recipes. One of the things I appreciate about Betty Liu’s My Shanghai is how she lovingly expresses her family history through the recipes that bring her comfort. Speaking from experience, when I moved away from home twenty years ago, it was the food and family recipes that helped ease the yearning for the places and people I missed. The recipes throughout My Shanghai are delicious and inviting — such a joy to cook and eat.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank Harper Design / Harper Collins Publishers for providing me with a free copy of this book. I did not receive monetary compensation for my post, and all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.