As a child, Malaysian-born Loretta Liu moved to Singapore, where she developed a deep interest in food. Going against her family’s wishes, she pursued a career in culinary arts, dipping her feet in the industry by securing a job at the city state’s iconic Raffles Hotel.
“I decided that I really like food a lot, so I started my work experience at Raffles Hotel, which was against what my dad wanted because he felt that working as a chef wasn’t suitable for a girl! But I decided to pursue that career path anyway,” she says, laughing.
During the course of her career in Singapore, she was schooled in classical French cooking by Pierre Gagnaire, Frederic Bau and the legendary Alain Ducasse. Liu later moved to the UK and became a chef and teacher in Raymond Blanc’s Le Manoir Aus Quat’ Saisons and then taught at Jean Christopher Novelli’s cookery school. Liu has also authored two cookbooks – Supercute Macarons and Modern Dim Sum.
Liu has been in the United Kingdom ever since. But she says that although she is schooled in Western cuisine and now lives in the West, she can’t help but feel nostalgic for the Asian food of her childhood.
“I find that as I get older, I become more nostalgic about my childhood and that is how I started working with a lot more Asian comfort food – basically the food I grew up with,” she says.
This comfort food forms the backbone of Liu’s latest cookbook, titled Bao: Asian-style Buns, Dumplings & More From Your Bamboo Steamer.
Putting together the book
The book is partly inspired by Liu’s grandmother, a migrant from China who is a talented home cook with an affinity for steamed Chinese meals.
“My grandmother is a very good cook and she loves steaming things. She is very big on healthy eating and when we were growing up, she was always telling us, ‘Don’t eat so many fried things!’ So I think my fondness for steaming food came from her,” explains Liu.
Liu said this is an especially good time for a cookbook like this to come out, especially in the West, where there is now a rabid interest in bao, dumplings and other Asian-themed steamed fare.
“I am always keen to put something together that has more cultural influence in the West, so bao is really picking up in the UK and it is moving away from traditional dim sum bao because people are beginning to enjoy steaming food as they are more health conscious. So I felt like this was the ideal time to put a book like this together,” says Liu.
For the uninitiated, steaming is a cooking technique that involves boiling water that vapourises into steam. The steam is what cooks the food and this method is actually very healthy, because it retains all the nutrients in an ingredient e.g. broccoli, cauliflower. Steaming is traditionally done in a bamboo or metal steamer and is very popular in Chinese cuisine, where steamed dishes like steamed fish, bao and wanton are regular dinner table meals.
Liu says that since this isn’t her first cookbook, putting it together wasn’t too hard. For example, many of the recipes in the book were dishes she had gleaned from her grandmother or learnt to make herself over the years.
She also worked hand in hand with a photographer and a food stylist who recreated all her recipes and gave her feedback so she could trouble-shoot if any of the meals didn’t turn out well during the execution process.
“The food stylist is a novice at steaming, but she did it (recreated every dish exactly according to Liu’s recipes) so this just shows how all the dishes are very achievable for people at home.
“We did add more information about steaming so readers can understand what it is, because steaming is not as straightforward as some might think – whether an ingredient is properly steamed or not depends on how rapidly the water is boiling, how strong the steam is and what type of steamer you are using,” explains Liu, who advocates using a bamboo steamer where possible.
Bao is a charming little fuss-free book with a wide range of steamed goodies, from baos and steamed bun recipes like clamshell bao with roast duck and hoisin sauce and molten egg custard buns to dim sum and dumplings like crab dumplings, salmon and mushroom dumplings and prawn dumplings. Interestingly, Liu also focuses on other steamed meals like spicy hot mussels, baby bell peppers with spicy peanuts and even desserts like steamed cassava cake.
Liu said she made a conscious decision to include all kinds of steamed food as opposed to just bao (as the title alludes) so that people would have more options and a smorgasbord of meals to experiment with in their steamers at home.
“It’s just to encourage variety; not everybody wants baos on their own and I think I wanted to put together a book that has got all the range of food, from carbs to desserts and also anything that anyone can cook in a steamer. So in one book, readers can explore what they can do with a steamer and be more creative after they have learnt the basics,” says Liu.
Liu says one of the things she loves the most about steaming food is how it allows for an entire meal to be crafted in a single steamer. For home cooks with little to no time to spare, this is a boon as multiple dishes can be cooked at a go for a single family meal.
“I like the fact that it is very easy to manage so as a chef, sometimes you can get bogged down by doing different dishes in different pots or having to fry different meals one after the other. But steamed food allows you to cook whole meals in one steamer.
“So for example, I might steam rice first, then when the rice is half-done, I then put some marinated chicken in to steam in the next layer and finally maybe add some eggs to steam and vegetables right at the end,” she says.
Perhaps one of the best attributes of a steamer though is the fact that this affordable little concoction cooks everything in different layers, which means little to no cleaning up afterwards!
“I feel like a steamer is so underutilised and underappreciated. Because I cannot stress how important it is to sometimes be able to cook and not manage the cleaning process! We are all living in smaller houses or smaller kitchens and gone are the days when generations of people lived together at home and helped clean up.
“These days, you live with your own small family, so it is a lot of stress to manage everything. And one of the reasons that prevents people from cooking is dealing with all the oil and grease and cleaning up. And I find steaming manages that very well.
“For me, for example, on the days that I am steaming food, I am quite happy because I know I don’t have to clean up afterwards!” says Liu, laughing.
Bao: Asian-Style Buns, Dumplings & More From Your Bamboo Steamer is priced at RM134.90 and available at Kinokuniya KLCC and selected MPH bookstores.
All pictures courtesy of: Bao by Lorretta Liu, published by Ryland Peters & Small; Photography by Clare Winfield © Ryland Peters & Small