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“Every family has their own way of preparing food, but that is my family’s perspective and our experience,” says Betty Liu

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Laura Brehaut The author, photographer and general surgeon Betty Liu celebrates the seasonality of Shanghai cuisine in her first cookbook, My Shanghai. Photo by Alexander Xu /Betty Liu

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Our cookbook of the week is My Shanghai by Betty Liu. To try a recipe from the book, check out: Shallot oil pasta, Mommy’s red braised pork belly and seasoned steamed eggplant.

Pig trotters make fantastic populations. But that’s not the only reason Betty Liu used the cut every week in fall 2017. Trotters, as it turned out, are also great at pulling off suturing techniques. After practicing on the two pig’s feet, which she bought weekly for a dollar each, she made trotter soybean soup. A family favorite in her debut cookbook My Shanghai (Harper Design, 2021), the recipe represents a rare amalgamation of their medical and culinary careers.

“To be honest, practicing on these hog trotters has helped me a lot to improve my technical skills,” says the Boston-based doctor, photographer and author. “They give us those fake rubber squares that are supposed to imitate the skin, but the feeling is really different. I apologize for being cruel, but pig organs feel very similar to human tissue, so it was much better to practice on. “

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Liu started writing about food on her blog. bettysliu.com, in 2015. She had left Oregon to study in St. Louis and longed for her parents’ seasonal, home-style Shanghai cuisine. She called and texted for instructions on how to cook different dishes; While visiting her home, she made videos of her mother wrapping dumplings or zongzi (sticky rice dumplings wrapped in bamboo leaves) for reference.

Her family’s cuisine, rooted in Jiangnan cuisine (the region includes Shanghai and the neighboring coastal provinces of Jiangsu and Zhejiang), found a devoted audience. The success of her blog led to a book deal for My Shanghai, which she wrote during her medical school and during the first two years of her general surgery residency.

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Writing a book, testing prescriptions, and taking photos while training to be a surgeon may sound like an overwhelming job, but for Liu, who turns to cooking as a stress reliever, the timing worked perfectly.

“With the medical degree your time is a little more flexible; it’s the tuition versus an actual 60 to 80 hour week job, ”she says. “It was a lot of time management, but it was great. And I had the flexibility to go to China before the pandemic. “

My Shanghai from Betty Liu Author Betty Liu is a general surgery resident based in Boston. In My Shanghai she celebrates the seasonality of Shanghai home cooking. Photo by Harper Design

Seasonality is at the heart of My Shanghai, and Liu has planned her research trips for all four seasons. She paid special attention to the changing daily offers at the local fresh markets, visited farmers, collectors and producers and set about transporting readers through her atmospheric photographs and stories.

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Liu’s parents are from Shanghai and her husband Alexander Xu has families in Nanjing, Suzhou and Wuxi. Her research for the book also served as family time, and her relatives were instrumental in connecting her with farmers and other food producers.

She follows the course of the year and writes about a visit to a hairy crab farm on Yang Cheng Lake during the autumn harvest, is happy about Shanghai’s plentiful winter fruits and vegetables, looks for bamboo in spring and eats ban mian, “dry sauce noodles”. as an antidote to the summer heat. A seasonal approach to the book was her goal from the start.

“Before I even created the exact recipe list, it was clear to me that I wanted to organize it according to the seasons. When I told my mom and dad about it, they said, ‘Sure. Why don’t you do it after the season? ‘ because how we eat at home is so important, ”says Liu. “Yet it’s something that hasn’t really been talked about and it’s something that isn’t really associated with Chinese food.”

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In the west, Chinese food has long been viewed as a monolith, Liu says: a generic category of dishes like mapo tofu and sweet and sour chicken. In recent years, however, the number of regional Chinese restaurants has grown, as has their representation in cookbooks.

It was worth seeing a growing interest in local Chinese cuisine and a greater curiosity about what makes Shanghai food stand out, she adds, as people become more aware of the distinct “light and refreshing” palette of flavors and signature techniques such as Hong Shao ( experience “red stewing”) “).

  1. Spring onion oil noodles from My Shanghai.

    Cook this: Spring Onion Oil Noodles from My Shanghai

  2. Mommy's red braised pork belly from My Shanghai.

    Cook this: Mom’s red braised pork belly from My Shanghai

  3. Spiced Steamed Eggplants from My Shanghai.

    Cook this: Spiced Steamed Eggplants from My Shanghai

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The timing of My Shanghai’s release in early March brought unexpected levels of meaning into a very personal project. Liu didn’t expect there would be such nostalgia for people who were unable to visit their families due to travel restrictions. It was especially meaningful to hear from so many readers given the rising number of anti-Asian attacks.

“It was another way to connect with the community and celebrate something positive in the midst of everything that was going on,” says Liu. “Some of the messages I got were very emotional, and I didn’t really expect them, considering the reaction I was going to get.”

Jiangnan’s flavors may be more subdued than other regions in China, explains Liu, but the cuisine has brightness, depth, and purity. The strength of home-style Shanghai cuisine lies in its concentration on fresh, seasonal ingredients. Soy sauce, cooking wine and vinegar are the most important spices. And while chefs use some flavorings (onion, ginger, and garlic) and subtle spices, the emphasis is on enhancing, rather than masking, natural flavors.

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“Every family has their own way of preparing food, but that is my family’s perspective and our experience. And I’m very honored to be able to share this with the people in one of the first Chinese cookbooks about this region, which was written by a Chinese, ”says Liu.

One of her goals with the book was to give context to the food in Shanghai; to integrate a travel element and to illustrate what the “city by the sea” is like in every season of the year. When she can return, Liu looks forward to immersing herself in her favorite street food, to which she dedicates a final chapter in My Shanghai – breakfast bao with pork and fan tuan (filled sticky rice roll) – to visit family and stroll through the markets.

“There are local markets every day,” says Liu. “A lot of people, including my family and my husband’s family, start every day with a trip to the market to buy just enough products for that day or maybe the next day. Everything is so microseasonal based on what is available in the markets. I love to just walk around and see what’s fresh. “

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