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Susur: A Culinary Life

by Susur Lee with Jacob Richler

Susur Lee has long been regarded one of the master artists of haute cuisine. This much-deserved status is the result of his highly individualistic vision, which elevates Chinese/French fusion cooking into rarefied art. Thus the very idea of a Susur cookbook is entertaining. At their most basic, cookbooks are recipe collections, and to think the home chef can reproduce a Susur dinner is like suggesting that, with a bit of instruction, the hobby painter can whip off a Picasso. Still, it is tremendously fun to try, and it is certainly crucial to have these recipes recorded in a book.

Susur: A Culinary Life is actually two books. In a unique design, Susur employs hidden magnets and a double binding to hold two hardcover volumes together. The first is a biography of Susur, written by National Post restaurant reviewer Jacob Richler. The second is a cookbook, collecting 57 of Susur’s recipes.

From Richler we learn about how, during Susur’s formative years cooking in colonial Hong Kong and travelling through Europe in the 1970s, he came to appreciate the differences between the “crispiness and chewiness” of Chinese cooking and the “buttery pleasures” of French food. “Europeans,” Susur explains, “tend to eat more with their back teeth; the Chinese do a lot of front-teeth eating.”

Occasionally overflowing with enthusiastic hyperbole, Richler’s text is nonetheless fascinating. He goes on to describe how Susur immigrated to Canada in 1979, worked in Toronto kitchens for many years, and then received rave reviews upon opening his first restaurant, Lotus, in 1987. In 1997, Susur closed Lotus to further develop his cooking style in Singapore. He returned to Toronto in 2000 to launch his magnum opus, the highly successful King Street restaurant Susur.

The cookbook portion of Susur is a fitting tribute to this chef’s remarkable vision. Shun Sasabuchi’s razor-sharp food photography is superb, accompanying such extraordinary recipes as Pig’s Ear Terrine, with Sesame Tuile, Torchon of Foie Gras and Foie Gras Mousse; Braised Veal Cheek, with Parsnip Purée, Cocoa Nibs, Grapes Stuffed with Dry-Cured Olives, and Parmesan; and Oysters Mignonette and Oysters in Kalamanci, Oyster Liquor, and Pennywort Vinaigrette, with Caviar Scallop Tartare.

Forget the astounding complexity of such recipes. The shopping lists alone for some of Susur’s dishes are marvellously daunting, requiring such ingredients as lotus root, duck fat, conch, periwinkles, elk striploin, fennel seedlings, and squab livers.

Susur is an amazing book. Godspeed to those who cook from it.