Welcome to Betty Liu’s Pantry! In each installment of this series, a recipe developer will share with us the pantry items essential to their cooking. This month, we're exploring 6 pantry staples stocking Betty’s Shanghainese-American kitchen.
China is a vast country with various geographies, terrains, and climates. As culinary preferences stem from the ingredients available from the land, it is not surprising that cuisines across China vary immensely. When I visit China, I take great joy in discovering and trying other regions’ cuisines, but despite my love for this vast spread of regional cuisines, I keep coming back to the food I grew up with, the food that brings me the most comfort: Jiangnan (江南) cuisine. My family is from this region, and this is the food I grew up eating. My debut cookbook, My Shanghai, is an homage to my family’s cooking—homestyle cooking from the Shanghai region and surrounding areas—and a written record of recipes that had previously been passed down orally. I grew up with the flavors of this region; it is no wonder this has helped shape my pantry, which is unequivocally Shanghainese-American.
Geographically, China is bisected by the Yangtze River or Chang Jiang (长江, “long river”), which flows from Sichuan in western China all the way to Shanghai (上海) and into the East China Sea. The Jiangnan region encompasses the lower Yangtze area, south of the long river. This includes the city of Shanghai, as well as the bordering coastal provinces of Zhejiang (浙江) and Jiangsu (江苏), plus part of Anhui (安徽).
My family has roots in this beautiful region: My mom’s whole family is from Shanghai. My dad grew up in Shanghai, but his ancestors are from Sichuan (this is where I get my penchant for spicy food). Jiangnan is crisscrossed by small streams, ponds, and lakes, providing abundant aquatic products and yielding bountiful, fertile land. Because of this, Jiangnan is poetically called yu mi zhi xiang (鱼米之乡, “Land of Fish and Rice”), an homage to its rich offerings. The fresh, seasonal food from this region has long been held in high regard, seen as refined and elevated. Jiangnan cuisine is also called Jiang-Zhe cai (江浙菜, “Jiang-Zhe cuisine”), which combines the first characters in Jiangsu and Zhejiang, intertwining these culinary histories even in name.
The first time I heard Jiangnan referred to as yu mi zhi xiang was as my family and I sped along a small road by Taihu (太湖, “Lake Tai”) with a beautiful golden field of rice swaying gently in the breeze on one side and the stunning expanse of the lake on the other. My dad told me, “There’s a reason we call this region the ‘Land of Fish and Rice.’” I thought back on the gorgeous local meal we’d just had: steamed, radiantly fragrant white fish; boiled tiny freshwater shrimp with vinegar; garlic fried eel; lightly pickled lu gen (芦根, “water bamboo”); chives with egg; a light and pure broth with chun cai (莼菜), a slippery water plant found only in this region; and white rice, rounded off with tangerines freshly plucked from the restaurant’s tree.
The core tenets of Jiangnan cuisine are fresh ingredients and seasonality. Compared with other regions of China, Jiangnan cuisine is the least strongly flavored, yet I would never call it bland. Instead of a complex blend of flavor profiles, the cuisine is straightforward, focusing on the ingredients and drawing on a few aromatics, subtle spices, and three core seasonings: soy sauce, cooking wine, and vinegar.
Shanghai cuisine is hard to describe. To call it sweet is too simple and doesn’t even get close to the heart of the cuisine. Yet that is how Shanghainese food is commonly labeled. It’s a real culinary nexus because it not only sits between the two aforementioned provinces, it is also a major metropolitan city. Despite, or perhaps due to, the lightning-quick pace of development, Shanghainese traditions are lovingly preserved, most notably seen in the persistence and prevalence of its cuisine. Shanghai used to be a small fishing village, situated advantageously on the Yangtze River Delta with numerous webs of canals and rivers flowing through the land.
Shanghainese food is qing dan shuang (清淡爽, “light and refreshing”). The food has purity, with plenty of depth in flavor, and is bright and well rounded, with a foundation in the flavors from the two neighboring provinces mentioned above. The light and fresh sweetness of Jiangsu shows up in dishes in my book such as the humble Blanched Water Spinach, while the refined saltiness of Zhejiang is represented by dishes such as Rice-Encrusted Pork Ribs. The cuisine is deeply seasonal and is really centered on the ingredients. Naturally, drawing from a land of rice and fish, the cuisine is rich in fresh vegetables and seafood, utilizing techniques such as steaming, braising, and saucing. Oftentimes, the ingredients will speak for themselves, enhanced by a few seasonings. Kou gan (口感, “mouthfeel”) is as important as flavor in this cuisine. Shanghainese cooking is most famous for hong shao (红烧, “red braise” or “red cooking”), food glazed in a luxurious sauce of soy sauce, wine, and sugar.
Since I moved away from home, these are the flavors I turn to for comfort, and ones I incorporate into my everyday cooking. I am so thrilled to share these pantry staples that I find useful—not only for cooking Shanghainese food but also just for daily use.
1. Jiang You (酱油, “soy sauce”)
In Shanghai, soy sauce (as opposed to salt) is the main seasoning, used to add an umami-savory touch to dishes. The cuisine of Jiangnan is famous for its use of soy sauce. Soy sauce comes in two main varieties: sheng chou (生抽, “light soy sauce”) and lao chou (老抽, “dark soy sauce"). Light soy sauce is thinner and has more flavor, used for giving a dish umami saltiness. Dark soy sauce is more syrupy and molasses-like. It’s less salty and is great for adding color. Pearl River Bridge and Lee Kum Kee make good “premium” soy sauces, though my parents have always used Kimlan’s soy sauce, and that’s what sits in my pantry
2. Zhenjiang xiang cu (镇江香醋, “black vinegar”)
Also called Chinkiang vinegar (the Cantonese pronunciation of Zhenjiang, a city in Jiangsu province) or xiang cu, “fragrant vinegar,” this aged black vinegar is made from glutinous rice. It’s my favorite vinegar to use in cooking, appearing in my cookbook recipes for Double Mushroom Noodle Soup, Shanghai "Smoked" Fish, and Chile Oil Wonton Sauce, among others. It has a rich, tart, sweet flavor. Black vinegar is available in many Western supermarkets these days. I would highly recommend stocking this in your pantry.
3. Shaoxing huang jiu (绍兴黄酒, “Shaoxing cooking wine”)
Also called huang jiu (黄酒) or liao jiu (料酒), this is a type of yellow rice wine with a dark amber hue, famously from the city Shaoxing, where fermentation is prized and the local cuisine is full of funky, fermented foods, like mei gan cai (梅干菜, “dried, pickled mustard greens”). It’s a heady, fragrant wine that serves as the main ingredient in dishes like the Drunken Chicken in my book. It’s used in cooking to help balance the fishiness of seafood and the meatiness of pork. This wine has a stunning fragrance. When using it as a main flavoring, try to find hua diao jiu (花雕酒), a finer-quality Shaoxing wine that can also be drunk. This is also readily available in Western supermarkets, but if you can’t find it, you can try to use a pale dry sherry or sake as a substitute.
4. sheng jiang (生姜, “fresh ginger”)
Ginger root is used in almost every dish, one of the essential ingredients in Jiangnan cooking. It complements meat, poultry, and shellfish particularly well. Ginger is prized in Chinese culture for its warming and cleansing qualities.
5. xiang cong (香葱, “scallions”)
These small green onions are prized not only for their slightly peppery taste when eaten raw, but also for their toasty aroma when cooked. They can help flavor a stock or soup or power an entire dish when slowly rendered in a nutty oil, such as the Scallion Oil Noodles in My Shanghai.
6. bing tang (冰糖, “rock sugar”)
Rock sugar is a crystallized raw sugar that is often used in Chinese cooking. Compared with its white sugar counterpart, rock sugar is milder and less sweet, with more caramelly tones, and becomes more treacly when dissolved. It’s used in braises and sauces because it also gives an extra gleam to the liquid. However, if you can’t find it, granulated sugar can be substituted.
Essay adapted from the book My Shanghai by Betty Liu. © 2021 by Betty Liu. Published by Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.