Lillian Luk, behind London’s Shanghai Supper Club, grew up in the sprawling urban centre of Shanghai, well fed by her grandmother whom she notes was a “fantastic cook and a culinary fountain of wisdom.” During her numerous voyages around the world, Luk honed her talents as a skilled eater and in 2014, encouraged by her friends, decided to start cooking herself, launching her own supper club to celebrate the food of her childhood. Based in Marylebone, Shanghai Supper Club offers Shanghai home cooking and street food through its pop-up dinners, cookery classes, take-out services, catering and special events. To learn more about the dining concept, Luk’s meandering journey into the food industry, and how Shanghai Supper Club is adapting to life during a pandemic, Something Curated spoke with the talented chef.
Something Curated: Can you tell us about your background; what drew you to a career in food?
Lillian Luk: I was born in Shanghai but my family decided to seek better fortunes abroad so we left in my early teens first to Hong Kong and finally settling in the US. Like a typical Asian immigrant family, my dad gave me a choice to be a lawyer, a doctor or an accountant. He wanted me to go to university and get a professional job, not to do what he did when he first arrived in the US, which was working in a restaurant. So, you see, a career in food was never an option for me. However, I’ve always loved eating. My paternal grandmother was a talented cook and my paternal grandfather was a very demanding eater, so growing up with them I developed good taste buds. I still tell people, to cook well, first you need to know how to eat well.
SC: How was Shanghai Supper Club born?
LL: Fast forward to 2014, and I’m on my second career in the City and third continent doing a job creating mounds of paperwork collecting dust on the proverbial shelf. Back then, London’s street food scene revolution was well underway but good regional Chinese food was still hard to find. I kept thinking how much happier I would be if I was out there rather than in here, cooking and feeding people something they actually would enjoy and want. There is also that fear that if I didn’t do it then, I would never leave the comfort of a corporate job and do something so reckless; I would have missed out the chance to pursue my passion! I decided to focus my food adventure on Shanghainese food because it’s not known in the UK but is famous in China and across the Chinese communities around the world for its large selection of street food and delicate cooking style.
SC: Can you give us some insight into the distinctive characteristics of Shanghainese food?
LL: Shanghainese food is often referred to as Nong You Chi Jiang, which translates to heavy oil and dark soy sauce, or what I call ugly delicious brown food. It refers to the soy sauce, rice wine and rice vinegars which are commonly used along with a good pinch of sugar to give that hint of sweetness to Shanghainese dishes. But this is only one aspect of Shanghainese cooking. Shanghainese food is renowned for its fine knife work in slivering and slicing ingredients into delicate slivers for quick stir frying to showcase seasonal ingredients with very subtle seasonings, often with nothing more than salt, sugar and sesame oil. Seasons are marked by what appears on the plate: winter bamboo, spring bamboo, Shepherd’s Purse, Ma Lan Tou, hairy crabs, chestnuts, just to name a few.
Vegan food is also a big part of the Shanghainese food offering thanks to the large number of monasteries in the region. Wheat gluten and tofu skin rolls are but two of the most well known vegan dishes that have made it onto every Shanghainese table. Tofu plays a huge part in making vegan food varied and interesting, including the famous or should I say notorious stinky tofu! Last but not the least is the Shanghainese custom of having Xiao Chi which can be translated into nibbles or snacks. It is something you eat in between the main meals and can be a basket of steamed XLB, a plate of fried Sheng Jian Bao, a bowl of wonton soup or some puff pastries… the list is endless.
SC: What are you currently working on and how has the pandemic affected the way you operate?
LL: I had never baked bread before, so I decided to use the time in lockdown to learn a new skill and learn to make bread. My family has certainly enjoyed the outputs. The pandemic made it impossible for us to host supper clubs safely. Our dinners were served communally and that’s definitely a no-no these days. So we decided to put the supper clubs on hold for now and focus our efforts on our takeaways.
SC: Are there any ingredients or processes that you are particularly enjoying working with at present?
LL: I’m enjoying foraging the local parks for wild greens, especially Shepherd’s Purse. It is one of those defining ingredients in Shanghainese wontons and is not available commercially in the UK. I had heard they grow wild here, but it was not until the lockdown when I finally went out with pictures on my iPhone to look for them. And guess what, I found them!
SC: What do you want to learn more about?
LL: I would love to know how we can get the farmers in the UK to grow more Asian greens. The climate here is quite suited to growing them but we don’t see many varieties offered. I think this is definitely a missed opportunity.
Images courtesy Shanghai Supper Club