A wedding photographer with her husband, Alex, by day, Betty shares recipes influenced by her Chinese heritage and her parents. She grew up in a home where white rice was a staple and comfort food was soup noodles, wontons or a fatty pork belly. Betty strongly believes that traditional Asian ingredients have a place in the modern culinary world.
I am so delighted to have Betty Liu of BettySLiu.com here on the show today.
On Shanghai Cuisine:
I think it’s really hard to describe what Shanghai cuisine is. It’s such a melting pot of a city, and there’s just so much movement among the regions of China. So for example, you know Shanghai shao mai? It’s kind of an open faced dumpling, and it’s a very common back of the street food in Shanghai. But the origins of the open faced dumpling actually came from the Canton region and that’s what a lot of people actually know it as, as what they eat in dim sum, so like, shu mai filled with pork and shrimp. But somehow that migrated over to Shanghai and they completely changed it and they filled it with sticky rice, some mushrooms and some pork.
So the way I knew shao mai was the way my mom made it, which was the Shanghai version. So I don’t know if I’d call it originated from Shanghai, but it’s definitely borrowed influences from other regions as well.
I don’t know if I can really describe it in one sentence, but it is very similar to the cuisines of the Jiangsu province and the Zhejiang province. For example, I can say definitively that it’s very, very different from Sichuan cuisine or Hunan cuisine, which is very spicy and oily.
On a Dish that Brings Her Memories:
It’s something called Zongzi, so specifically Ro Zongzi. It’s basically savory sticky rice and braised pork wrapped in a bamboo leaf and it’s steamed. And it’s traditionally eaten during Dragon Boat Festival. My mom would always make it, and we would have it for breakfast and we would have it year-round. So that’s definitely something that I look forward to.
There are so many different versions. Like, I think the Taiwan version has peanuts and I know there’s a Cantonese version. I think it has Chinese sausage, but I don’t want to claim anything. But there’s a sweet version that is sticky rice as well, but with red bean paste. I’m personally not really a fan of the sweet Zongzi, but I know it exists.
On Asian Food Becoming More Refined (in the West):
I think people are becoming fed up with their food being misrepresented. And I think there’s a huge movement towards actually learning authentic cuisine and interpreting it in different ways. So I see a lot of more authentic cuisine restaurants popping up, but also a lot of great Asian fusion, and it’s really fascinating. There’s one restaurant nearby, you know Myers and Chang? It’s in Boston and they do a lot of fusion and it’s really amazing. I think it stays true to authentic cuisine but interpreting it in different ways.
I don’t want to claim to be an expert on authentic Chinese cuisine. Basically, home-style Chinese cooking, that’s what I consider authentic and I think you can find that out in the restaurants these days. Just avoid Panda Express or anything that’s obviously westernized. And my perception of authentic Chinese food hasn’t really changed. I still consider home-style Chinese food pretty authentic.
On Ingredients in a Chinese Pantry:
Because there are so many different dishes and variations in China, I wouldn’t say there’s something that you can really put together and just make a Chinese dish. But I can tell you what I always have stocked in my pantry. I always have two types of soy sauce. I have cooking wine, usually black vinegar, and I always have fresh ginger and fresh scallions in my fridge and of course, always white rice.
I guess you could call it, dark soy sauce and there’s also light soy sauce. So they’re different and you can use it in different ways. From what I understand, dark soy sauce, you can really get a lot of color from it but actually the light soy sauce has more of the flavoring.
On Simple Chinese Dish for Beginners:
I think scallion pancakes. It’s not that difficult. It’s just scallions and flour and salt and sesame oil. But it’s really easy and it’s very popular.
I also put a layer of egg on it, so people can choose to omit that if they want because that’s an extra step, but it is on my blog, if anyone’s interested.
On Some Good Resources for Learning More About Chinese Cuisine:
There are some really great food bloggers out there that I think you can really learn a lot about Chinese cuisine from. So there’s Lady and Pups by Mandy, and she has some really great recipes. And The Woks of Life is another great blog. It’s a whole family blogging about Chinese food and it’s a really great resource.
On Her Blog:
When I first started my blog, it wasn’t actually meant to be a food blog. It was more for myself. Everything was private. I just wanted to have a place where I could keep track of my cooking, specifically I wanted to learn my mom’s recipes. And the way she taught me, it wasn’t a recipe at all. It was just like, “Put a little bit of salt here, pour some cooking wine. Cook it until it feels right.” So I would describe it as very instinctive. But, as a novice cook, I didn’t have that instinct yet. So I did a lot of experimentation with proportions and how to actually make the dish. And then since I’m a photographer, taking photos of the steps and product just became a natural second step. And I discovered that I really enjoyed it and I just continued.
My husband really encouraged me. He thought that people would really want to learn, especially authentic Chinese cuisine. And my friends also started asking me for my recipes because I would use them a lot as my guinea pigs to see if my dish was good.
They really thought that people would be interested in that. I mean it was a pretty big step. I think I’m a pretty private person, but I’m having a lot of fun with it and it’s really allowed me to make a lot of connections and friends that I wouldn’t otherwise have known.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I guess one that I really resonate with is Bread and Barrow. She’s really great. I know her personally and her posts are always super insightful, very thorough, very detail oriented, and she focuses on New England cuisine. Now that I live in Boston, that’s particularly interesting to me because I don’t think I knew much about New England cuisine except for New England clam chowder.
And then Nik from A Brown Table. I just really admire his photography and how he stays true to his own style. And his recipes are just amazing too, so that’s one. And I guess I would say Hummingbird High. That blog actually taught me a lot of what I know about baking. Her recipes, she always has these notes on how to make the recipe and baking tips. You can learn a lot about baking from that.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook that make you happy?
I really love Cynthia from Two Red Bowls. Her photos are always beautifully styled and she has really great sounding recipes. Again, Lady and Pups, her photos are just stunning. And I guess there’s also Beth from Local Milk. Everything she posts is just a beautiful vignette and I love that glimpse into what she’s doing. And the last one, I guess, is Feed Feed. It’s a community, and I love that it’s community-based, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to discover other food bloggers out there.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I recently got a fermentation crock and that just opened the whole world of fermentation up to me. And I’m really excited to use it. I just made kimchi.
I didn’t even know that you could make kimchi at home so easily. So, I’m really excited to do future fermentation projects.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
Ginger. I used to hate it. I would always fish it out of any dish. My mom used to force us to drink hot brewed ginger tea when we were sick and I just hated it. It was the worst medicine I could ever have. I preferred cough syrup to ginger tea. But you know, I think once I started cooking, I started to really appreciate what ginger can bring to dishes, and I actually really love ginger tea now. I love the effect that it has on my body. It really warms you up immediately.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
There’s one book that I’m reading right now. I don’t know if it is counted as a cookbook, it’s called On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee. And it basically goes over the science behind food, and it’s really fascinating because there’s just so much about food that I didn’t know before. I think it might make me a better cook if I actually understand why things work, like how does fermentation work?
So another one, I just got a book, it’s called A Boat, A Walrus and a Whale, and it’s just beautifully written. It’s very coastal.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?
On Keeping Posted with Betty: