When Betty Liu was in college in St. Louis, she used the dorm’s kitchen to make an egg and tomato stir-fry. “It was a disaster,” she writes in “My Shanghai: Recipes and Stories From a City on the Water.” “The eggs stuck to the wok and the tomatoes turned it all to mush.” When Liu asked her mother for cooking lessons, her mother was perplexed. Her Shanghai-born mom had watched while four or five families cooked in a communal kitchen and the girl learned by helping out.
So Liu, now 29, followed suit, on breaks from college, then from Tufts Medical School, then from a surgery residency at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston, where she’s now in her second year. During a surgery rotation in medical school, Liu writes, she practiced suture skills not on banana peels and chicken thighs the way most students do, but on pig trotters, which she then used to make her weekly pot of pork and soybean soup.
“My Shanghai” is a tour de force, not just because Liu managed to write it under such demanding circumstances. She photographed almost every recipe in the book, along with clear and instructive step-by-step photos for complicated dumplings and buns (she put her Nikon D850 on a tripod with a remote shutter and timer) and they’re beautifully lit and stylish in an understated way. She also gives the Chinese characters for every dish and expression she mentions, with charming introductory notes to the recipes.
The Jiangnan (pronounced Jeong-nan) region Liu writes about, which encompasses Shanghai, is known as “The Land of Fish and Rice.” Shanghai sits on the Yangtze River Delta and the region has rivers, lakes, and mountains. Jiangnan cuisine, she writes, is based on seasonality, more so than other regions in China. The food isn’t highly seasoned, but it’s not bland. Three basic ingredients are soy sauce, wine, and vinegar, and many dishes combine sweet, salty, and vinegary elements.
On the phone from her home near Boston’s Chinatown (convenient for food shopping, she says), Liu explains that winter in Shanghai is bitingly cold and dry, as it is here, with snow in the nearby mountains. So the many stews and soups in the winter chapter are suitable for Boston kitchens. Red braising, which uses soy sauces, wine, and sugar, is the most famous technique of the region and results in a red, caramel-y brown sauce. The technique is applied to pork belly, one of her favorite dishes from home, a whole fish, and giant pork meatballs.
Liu’s book will teach you how to prevent the purple skin on eggplant from turning brown during cooking (soak it first in a vinegar bath), how to get the creamiest texture from chicken (poach in boiling water, then plunge in ice water), how to make the crispiest fried eggs (drop into hot oil and watch the whites curl into lacy “tiger pattern” edges).
She’ll also show you all kinds of dumplings for the Lunar New Year and many noodle dishes, including Scallion Oil Noodles. It’s the most pleasing, simple dish in which you toss Shanghai noodles (thin wheat noodles; you can also use dried ramen noodles or Japanese udon) with an infused oil made by cooking scallions in oil over low heat for at least 20 minutes.
Scallion Oil Noodles, writes Liu, is “a quintessential old Shanghai dish, a humble, yet extremely satisfying, bowl of noodles. This dish highlights the secret of that complex umami flavor used in many of Shanghai’s signature dishes: scallion oil.” The recipe calls for dried shrimp, which can be hard to find. Liu tells me on the phone that she leaves it out when she’s cooking for vegetarian friends. The cooked noodles are coated with dark and light soy sauce, Chinese black vinegar (or Worcestershire or balsamic vinegar), and crushed rock sugar or granulated sugar. The strands are dark, slightly sweet, deliciously oniony.
“My Shanghai” is a warm tribute to the family Liu became part of when she married Alexander Xu, her boyfriend in high school in Fremont, Calif., where she was raised. Xu is a surgery resident at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center.
The book is also a loving testimonial to Liu’s mother, who seems to have taught her daughter many skills beyond the kitchen.
My Shanghai: Recipes and Stories from a City on the Water
By Betty Liu
Harper Design, 287 pp., $35
“My Shanghai: Recipes and Stories from a City on the Water” is available for pre-order; the publication date is March 9, 2021.