THERE are very few ingredients that can share the table with a Bloody Mary and a shengjianbao (fried dumplings with pork filling) with equal finesse, and honestly any condiment that can do so is worthy of its own column in my book.
As it turns out, Worcestershire sauce, or la jiangyou, its Chinese incarnation, shares a history as rich as the city around us. Dark, piquant and rounded with residual fermented sweetness, la jiangyou is a sauce that was born in the East, matured in the West and now weaves itself into the tapestry that is modern Chinese cuisine.
Though the true history of Worcestershire sauce may remain forever clouded in myth and mystery, the general gist is that the Worcestershire sauce recipe was given to druggists Lea and Perrins in the UK to replicate by some nobleman who had tasted it in the East.
The resulting first batch was apparently so strong and pungent that the resulting sauce was declared a failure and tossed into the cellar. A few years later, while looking to clear space, said druggists came upon the barrel again and this time found the sauce to be subdued, savory, and altogether delicious. Nearly 200 years later, the same formula continues to contribute to Caesar salads and Chex Mix across the world.
Where Worcestershire's world collides with that of China's is the decadent early years of the republic here in China. The ladies wore qipao and smoked cigarettes with tapered long filters, resplendent in pearls and elbow-length white gloves. The gentleman, wearing with cheongsam, fedoras and spectacles, all knew kung fu and ran gangs of coolies while simultaneously drinking and carousing in jazz clubs.
At least that's what the movies I watched growing up would have me imagine. And while the truth may have been decidedly less glamorous, the societies the movies depicted were very real indeed.
In the 1930s, the entire world seemed to converge on the "Paris of the East" and as with all international cities, one industry that would be the quickest to adapt was that of food and restaurants. Worcestershire sauce was initially brought over with the British but the condiment soon found favor with many Chinese, both here in Shanghai, as well as in Hong Kong where it is still a standard accompaniment to many modern dim sum.
The association between Worcestershire sauce and Western cuisine was evident in many of the classic Western restaurants of the era like Red House on Huaihai Road and Donghai Café on Nanjing Road where it was often simply left on the table for the customers, much like ketchup.
But it wasn't long before the Shanghainese began to appropriate la jiangyou for themselves, incorporating it into classic dishes like Russian borscht (the Chinese tomato version, no beets involved) and as a dipping sauce for local favorites like breaded pork chops and shengjianbao.
My personal favorite brand is Shanghai Worcestershire sauce, first created in 1930. Compared with Lea and Perrins, I find Chinese Worcestershire sauce sharper and a little less sweet, a perfect foil to fattier cuts of meat. While delicious all by itself, Worcestershire sauce melds well into brines and marinades. I also like to add a dash into my cream-based sauces for some added brightness and depth of flavor.
La jiangyou's Western heritage is undeniable. However, the endless adaptability of the Chinese and the universal appeal of fermentation have allowed Worcestershire sauce to scale new heights here in the motherland. Like the Bund skyline, the simple condiment born of Europe has long ceased to be party to such traditional definitions, rather, la jiangyou occupies its own space as a foodstuff both of the West and the East, and ultimately, uniquely Shanghai.
La jiangyou glazed pork chop (serves 2)
2 pork chops with bone frenched, at least 3cm thick
2 shallots, diced
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1/2 red chili, sliced
2 tbsp la jiangyou (preferably Shanghai brand)
1 tbsp ketchup
1 tsp lemon juice
1t Dijon mustard
3 tbsp pork stock
1 tbsp butter
1/2 tsp chili powder
1/2 tsp smoked paprika
Salt and pepper
1. Start the day before. Salt and pepper the pork chops as if you were about to cook them immediately. Place seasoned pork on a plate and refrigerate for at least overnight. Take it out an hour before you plan to cook it.
2. Turn oven to 170 degrees and begin heating your largest saute pan over medium heat. When pan is suitably hot and meat sizzles, place a little olive oil in the pan and add your two chops.
3. Color both sides of the chop to a golden brown and transfer to a baking sheet that will fit in your oven. Place pork in oven for 8-9 minutes or until the red has just disappeared in the middle.
4. In the meantime, in the same pan that you sautéed the pork in, add additional olive oil and sauté the shallots, garlic and chili until fragrant.
Add the remaining ingredients except for butter and mix well to combine. Simmer for 5 minutes.
5. Strain resulting sauce through sieve and slowly emulsify the last tablespoon of butter into it. Season and set aside.
6. When removing pork chop from the pan, let it rest in the la jiangyou glaze, turning frequently.
7. Reheat and slice to serve, in our case, over a bed of greens and charred onion risotto.