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Susur A Culinary Life on

Susur: A Culinary Life
by Susur Lee
(10 Speed Press, 2005)

Interview with Susur Lee By Tejal Rao

What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
SL: I have so many favorites! When I come across books I don’t know I am very curious. I like simple cookbooks from China, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia; I’m fascinated by new and old cuisines. Most Asian chefs don’t write big fat cookbooks with lots of photography. They’re very straightforward and that’s really inspiring for me. Asian food is my comfort food so I like seeing recipes for Beef Rendang, Cantonese Street Food, and Chinese snacks.

How often do you go back?
SL: I try to go back once a year. It’s always really inspiring. When I was in Shanghai three months ago, a friend I used to work with in Singapore invited me to go to a few different restaurants in China. I had a great time at The Government Hotel learning about freshwater crab and pickling. I had this amazing, very traditional dumpling called a suckling dumpling. Basically it’s one big dumpling in a rice bowl steamed with stock inside, and when they serve it, they poke a hole and give you a straw! It’s very traditional, so I suppose they used to use a bamboo straw in the olden days. I thought, wow, this is fantastic!

Did it inspire any dishes?
SL: Yes, I make a lobster-filled squid ink ravioli in lobster consommé, with the stock inside. But I have to add meat; North Americans need meat!

The book is very unorthodox but completely cohesive. Recipes aren't grouped by fish, game, vegetables, or soups, but rather by where they plot in your life. Why did you choose to set your book up as two separate books?
SL: Bruce Mao helped me come up with the idea. I told him I wanted to combine recipes with history and make it very personal. He came up with this idea and I knew it was right for me.

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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 at Susur.


Lobster-Filled Squid Ink Ravioli in Lobster Consomme
From Susur: A Culinary Life by Susur Lee (10 Speed Press, 2005)
Adapted by StarChefs

Yield: 4 Servings


    Lobster Ravioli Filling:
  • 2 sheets gelatin
  • 1 cup lobster consommé
  • 4 shiitake mushrooms, finely diced
  • 1 (1 ½ pound) boiled lobster, tail meat diced
  • Pinch of sea salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • Freshly ground black pepper

    Squid Ink Dough:
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 Tablespoons hot water
  • 3 Tablespoons squid ink
  • 3 large eggs

  • 1 egg white
  • 1 cup lobster consommé
  • 2 Tablespoons shao hsing wine
  • Pinch sea salt
  • Pinch ground white pepper
  • Onion oil
  • 4 ounces lobster claw meat, for garnish
  • 4 lobster tentacles, for garnish
  • 4 chives, for garnish
  • ¼ cup cooked lobster roe, for garnish
  • Spirulina powder
For Lobster Ravioli Filling:
Soak gelatin leaves in water. Remove leaves and squeeze out excess water. Place in stainless-steel bowl over pot of simmering water and melt. Add cold lobster consommé and mix well. Transfer bowl to refrigerator and chill for 1 hour to set. When set, remove and dice. Toss with mushrooms and lobster tail meat. Season with salt and peppers and return to refrigerator until ready to use.

For Squid Ink Dough:
Using a stand mixer with dough hook, combine the flour and water and mix until dough forms. Continue mixing while adding squid ink. Add eggs, one at a time, until dough is smooth and almost black. Transfer dough to a work surface dusted with flour and knead for 8 to 10 minutes. Divide dough into 2 balls and roll out each to make a rope. Flatten each rope into a strip and, using a pasta machine, run each strip through decreasing settings until setting 4 is reached. Let noodle sheets dry for at least 45 minutes before cutting (if sheets are sticky, dust with flour).

Once dried, lay each sheet out on flour-dusted countertop. With a 4-inch cookie cutter, cut out 4 ravioli tops. With 3 ½-inch cookie cutter, cut out 4 ravioli bottoms. Dust with flour to prevent sticking. On baking sheet, arrange bottom ravioli rounds. Spoon ¼ cup of ravioli filling in center of each. Brush egg white around edges of ravioli and place each top over filling. Enclose filling in ravioli circles, making sure there are no air pockets, and pinch to seal.

In medium pot, bring lobster consommé to a boil with wine. Season with salt and pepper. Place each lobster ravioli in soup bowl oiled very lightly with onion oil. Pout hot consommé, about ¼ cup each, over ravioli. Transfer bowls to steamer and steam ravioli in consommé for 15 minutes, or until cooked through.

To Serve:
Slice lobster claws into 4 portions. Use lobster tentacles to skewer lobster claw slices. Insert ends of tentacles into chives. Garnish each bowl of ravioli and consommé with lobster roe, skewered claw slice, and sprinkling of spirulina.



You were compared to Toronto's new wave of chefs Michael Stadlander and Jamie Kennedy-how did you fit into this scene?
SL: Oh, that was such a long time ago! I’m so much more experienced now. Now I like to combine the old things with the new things. Going back to the old stuff has become another way of training myself.

In the book, it sounds like your food was almost immediately embraced by the Toronto culinary scene. Did you encounter any difficulties in the evolution of your risky style?
SL: No, not really. I was very young and I had no responsibilities, no problems, no fear. My whole focus was on cooking and experimenting, on learning and recording my experiences. My only fear was that I might produce bad dishes!

Sweetness plays an important part in the composition of your dishes. Cane sugar, lobster meat, compotes, mirin, there's always an element of sweetness to balance out your dishes. But there are no dessert recipes in the book! I know you've had a French pastry background-how does pastry fit into your restaurant?
SL: I really like to make balanced food and draw from different sources of sweetness. In my pig’s ear terrine I like to use cane sugar. That kind of sweetness isn’t very harsh; it doesn’t destroy your appetite. Cane sugar gives you another kind of taste that’s very subtle and much more refined than white sugar. I don’t have a pastry chef at the restaurant; I come up with pastry ideas myself and share them with my apprentices.

Any plans for a dessert cookbook?
SL: I’d love to but there’s no time! I joke sometimes that I’m going to live in the hills so I can finish all my projects. But one example of a dessert at Susur right now is a sweet and sticky rice dumpling. I make a sweet chestnut puree and I wrap it like a manju, a Japanese dessert. Then I roll it in hazelnuts and serve it with a warm chocolate sauce. It’s very decadent, but not too sweet. Sometimes I serve it with a nutmeg ganache as well, which makes it a little spicy.

The last chapter in the first book is my favorite. It really gives an insight to the energy and philosophy at Susur. The kitchen sounds so well-planned! What are some of your favorite features? I know that the steamer was in your presentation, the book mentions the steamer as well….
SL: Yes, I love my steamer! It’s a typical Hong Kong style steamer, so there’s no digital face or anything, just water and fire. But it gives me a constant, consistent steam penetration. I’d say it’s the most important feature in my kitchen. I use it for so many things, not just cooking. I wrap plates in saran wrap and keep plates warm in there too! They never break, never overheat.

In the book you say the three most important things in your kitchen are garlic, the staff's good mood, and that burst of energy before service. How do you keep your cooks in a good mood?
SL: Well, kitchen culture is very different. Running a kitchen is like going into a nuthouse and organizing all the patients into performing a play. Sometimes I say if I wasn’t a chef I’d be a psychiatrist for chefs; I’d probably do very well. I grew up in the streets, not in school, so it was all about people. I think that’s helped me get along with my cooks really well. I know when to talk to them and when to leave then alone. I know when to give them a hard time and when to back off. It’s very complicated. And while I think humor is important, so is discipline.

What’s family meal like at Susur?
SL: Well the guy supposed to be cooking it is late today, but we’re having Roma tomato sauce, parmesan cheese, pesto with marjoram, just something simple. Every day we sit down and eat and some guys sit outside. Let’s be honest, we’re not sitting around and holding hands; it’s not wine and chat time, but we always have time to eat together.

Do you really have a Cadbury bar and espresso before service?
SL: Yes, sometimes I need that juice! I really like it; it’s my little jump! I used to not like espresso but as I got older, I started to need it. I think it’s all mental though.

You describe the skate dish with crab, truffles and periwinkles as being luxurious, and very 80's. What ingredients have inspired you this year? What dish is very Susur 2006?
SL: Sometimes the very old is the very new. Most old things are a foundation of technique and knowledge. I discovered rice paper, not the Vietnamese one but the Chinese one; it’s as thin as silk, it’s just amazing! When I was a kid, I think I had it in fried shrimp toast. It’s almost like a vegetarian caul fat: thin and melts on heat! Right now, I’m using it to make my version of an Oyster Rockefeller. First I braise the oyster, then I cool it down. I make a cream of half chyrsanthemum leaf, half spinach with diced chorizo, garlic, cheese, nutmeg and parmesan then wrap it around the braised oyster. I seal the whole thing in the rice papar, coat it in Panko and then deep fry it. I call it a Rockefeller Croquette!

Why did you choose Toronto to set up shop?
SL: I thought that, running a hectic restaurant, I could have a higher quality of life for my family in Toronto. I learned a lot from my time working here and it’s close enough to other big cities.

What’s in the future for you?
SL: I would really like to explore the market in the States. I’ve been learning with my two restaurants in Toronto for seven years now and I want to give myself a big push and branch out--maybe to New York.