Cookbook: Susur A Culinary Life
by Tejal Rao
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
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
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.
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!
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
Any plans for a dessert
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
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.
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.
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
in the future for you?
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.