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Image: Instagram/Shanghai Supper Club

5 things I've learned: Lillian Luk, the home chef who started a top supper club

Lillian plates up braised duck, pork buns, steamed fish and more for diners all over London.
Aug 10th 2018, 10:34 AM 1,025 0

GROWING UP IN Shanghai on China’s central coast, Lillian Luk’s first food memories are based around her grandmother’s home cooking.

Four years ago, Lillian gave up a corporate finance role to start up Shanghai Supper Club. The London-based company offers Shanghainese catering and – as the name suggests – regular supper clubs with shared plates of braised duck, pork dumplings, zongzi (rice wrapped in bamboo leaves), steamed fish and more.

Despite her expert-level knowledge of Shanghai’s native cuisine, Lillian’s recipes are patched together from a “cross pollination” of memories and research.

I never had any formal training, and my grandmother didn’t teach me to cook either. She passed away before my real interest in cooking started, so I was never able to get any recipes from her.

Luckily for Lillian, Shanghainese cooking relies so strongly on flavours and textures – fresh ginger, the umami of soy sauce, smooth and sticky rice – that her “deeply ingrained food memory” helped her to replicate many of the dishes her grandmother had prepared for her down the years.

We asked Lillian to share five things she’s learned along her food journey…

1. Great chefs can make great food from terrible ingredients

“I grew up during China’s post cultural revolution, before the open economy. We relied on the black market, food stamps and bartering to get what we needed – not from lack of money but from lack of supply.

“My grandma was very creative and would use whatever ingredients we had. Nothing was ever wasted: we ate a lot of curried potatoes, long beans and tofu. Right now there’s a big emphasis on sourcing the best ingredients but my grandma’s attitude really framed how I think about food preparation.”

2. Home cooking is not a precise art

“At first when I started cooking Shanghainese cuisine myself, I tried to find recipes that mirrored the dishes I remembered. But then I realised that I could remember enough to the tastes to create the dishes myself. Home cooking is not precise, and in China each household has their own flavour profile.”

3. Pork buns for breakfast are always a good idea

Breakfast of Sheng Jian is just what a growing tween needs. 💪💪💪

A post shared by Shanghai Supper Club (@shanghaisupper) on

“One of my favourite dishes to prepare and eat is Shengjain Bao, which literally means ‘raw pan fried bun’. The stuffed pork buns are an ubiquitous street food in China and it’s a dish that brings back memories of life in Shanghai. It’s one of our classic dishes at Shanghai Supper Club – and it’s a great breakfast too.

“You ‘steam’ the buns in a pan and let the water evaporate to get some crispiness. The result is a bun that’s fluffy, but not too fluffy. I make them by the batch.”

4. Like me, London still has a lot to learn about Chinese food

“London is very cosmopolitan but there is an ignorance about Chinese food. Given the size of China, the cuisine is extremely diverse and I don’t know many of the varieties out there despite being a native born Chinese child myself.

In Shanghainese cuisine, we eat a lot of wild greens, vegetables and bamboo. It’s a rice country so we use a lot of rice wine in our food. It’s actually more similar to Japanese food, flavour-wise, rather than classic Chinese cuisine.”

5. Try a new career path every ten years (at least!)

“I’ve always loved food but had never done anything with it professionally. But my kids were needing more care, my corporate career had moved more into management, and I thought it’d be a good time to change track.

I’m not looking for a continuous path in my career and I’ve done different things every ten years, so I was ready. A friend suggested I start my own takeaway or supper club so I hosted a test run with friends and colleagues. That was four years ago and I’m still running them.”

Follow Lillian’s work on Instagram and – if you’re heading to London – find news of her next supper club here. 

More: ‘Fresh food is alive’ – how Jessica Murphy of Kai keeps it real in the kitchen>

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