Cookbook: Susur A Culinary Life

by Tejal Rao
October 2006



For Susur Lee, who left his native Hong Kong in 1980, the history and rigidity of Chinese kitchen culture became a launching pad into culinary freedom and experimentation. To those unfamiliar with Susur's cuisine and style, at first glance his cookbook may not make sense. The very form of the book challenges the rules of cookbook publishing--two books are held together by a double binding that unfolds in the center to reveal a photo of his restaurant, Susur.

Read book one and see how the streets of Hong Kong, the grand French Hotel kitchens, and the travels through Europe each found their way into Susur's dishes. In one chapter, Susur blasphemously goes on to experiment with the 9th Stream of Chinese Cooking, challenging the purists who argue there are only 8 regional Chinese cooking styles. This research and work in Singapore is only the beginning of Susur’s evolving, unconventional style.

Every personal and professional success and tragedy is catalogued in colorful photography and Jacob Richler's detailed, honest writing. No story is without a small culinary epiphany that adds to Susur's growing repertoire. By the time you reach the close of the gritty biography and arrive in Susur's current Toronto kitchen just before service, the title, A Culinary Life, makes perfect sense. The form of the book, which at first suggested a tension and multiplicity of identity, actually reveals a clear and well-integrated symmetry: book two reflects book one. The personal culinary journey of photos and words is mirrored by a culinary journey of recipes.

Susur's recipes are not ordered by fish, game, or vegetable, nor are they ordered by season or course. The preserved lemons Susur first tasted in 1978 on a trip to Morocco in book one find their way into Pan-Roasted Scallops with Sunchoke Puree, Pancetta, and Periwinkles in Truffle Sauce in book two. The emulsified fatty Tiajin stock Susur learned to make while stunning and gutting fish at Peking House in Hong Kong comes back in the form of a Wuxi-Style Wild Boar Belly on Parsnip Romano Bean Puree with Apple and Cipollini Onions-- a dish, that if you paid attention to chapter three, evolved from an Ontario Rabbit with Szechwan Garlic and Eggplant Sauce with Black and Sweet Rice Sausage once served at Lotus in Toronto.

The pieces of Susur's culinary puzzle come together as every story tells a dish. In what can only be described as Susur-style, the logic of the cookbook is in the personal, chronological and culinary adventure, that sets very high expectations for a trip to Toronto and a dinner atSusur.