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Susur: A Culinary Life

by: Susur Lee

Berkeley CA: Ten Speed Press 2005, $50.00, Hardbound
ISBN: 1-58008-730-2

Reviewed by: Jacqueline M. Newman
Summer Volume: 2006 Issue: 13(2) page(s): 24 and 25

This two volume magnetically-bound-together book-set is as unique as is its chef-author. The first part is essays written by Jacob Richler about Chef Lee's passion for food and life. The second is Lee's recipes; some are complex, all are loaded with professional touches and culinary genius.

This two-equals-one means the books can not be separated. It makes it fascinating, but infuriating. Clever yes, easy to read or cook from, no. The volume as one needs to be handled with care, preferable when sitting down, and certainly not near the stove. It can never be two, unless you cut them in half. Like the dining room of Lee's latest restaurant where white looks colorful, the photographs in this book are magnificent, their creativity an extension of the Susur-self. His food inspires and enthrals and is, as the author says, nouvelle Chinois. The ideas of this Hong Kong born Toronto-based culinary colossal are creative, clear, and current. In every recipe, a special technique or a taste can be found.

Working in Hong Kong kitchens, Lee did learn to shell shrimp, shuck oysters, slice meats, wash woks, and learn from every thing and everybody. He mixes work with tasting and tasting again, even things he dislikes at first. This enlivens his future food when he marries techniques and tastes, French and Chinese.

His ideas tried out at his first eatery, Restaurant Lotus, and other restaurants owned long after landing in Canada, show him that the buttery pleasures of Chicken Kiev and marvelous marinating mixtures of rose wine, ginger, black rice, and salty fish. To him, these make sense. He picks up practical skills when partying with chefs, soaks up Hong Kong street food when there, and acquires banquet beauties; all to marry with the precision of a kung fu master, which he is. His multiple tastes and textures tantalize and enter every one of the book's sixty recipes. Each is precise and pictured, all worth learning from.

Not necessary--though it is highly desirable--to go to Toronto to enjoy his sought-after food, this book will double your delight just by reading them. Included are easy ones such as Whole Five-spice Roasted Squab, and complex ones as is Chinese-style Braised Abalone with Braised Pig's Ear, Celery, and Julienned Black Truffle Salad. Some are Francophiled as is the Cocoa Squab Liver Pate with Taro Fritters, Egg, and Caviar Creme Fraiche, and Honey Mustard Sauce. Others are so Chinese they beg your honorable indulgence as does the Steamed Scallops in Soy Custard with Cantonese Black Bean Garnish.

Susur Lee's love of food showed when he arrived in Toronto. That day he looks for a job. The next is offered three and accepts them all concurrently. He worked daily and learns from them all. Now, at the same breakneck speed, he writes a book, operates a pair of restaurants, consults widely, and inspires us all.

Reading the book is to get involved in his frenetic pace. Just his recipe titles show that, and his depth and creativity. The one below, its total tile is Spinach Soy Milk Custard with Caviar and Verjus Sabayon and Quail Egg Yolk. It is a typical example.

All of them show innovation and expertise; all are treats for foodies and chefs alike. Cooking them may take time, talent, and page flipping because rare is the one not needing one of the thirty-seven basic stock, marinade, glaze, batter, crepe, dough, sauce, and crumb recipe found at the end of the first book/section. They alone and the thirty-nine glossary items show Susur's attention to detail and his culinary delights.
Spinach Soy Milk Custard
2 eggs
1 cup soy milk
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
dash of ground white pepper
1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
1/4 cup packed finely chopped spinach
1 egg yolk
1/4 cup verjus (a mix of crab apple, sour grape, and other unripe fruit juices)
1/2 teaspoon sugar
pinch of sea salt
pinch of ground white pepper
4 raw quail eggs
2 teaspoons black caviar
1. In a small bowl, whisk eggs and soy milk, then pass mixture through mesh strainer before adding half teaspoon sugar, and teaspoon of salt and dash of ground white pepper. Pour mixture, divided evenly, into four oiled ramekins or custard cups about two and a half inches wide. Then sprinkle a tablespoon of chopped spinach on each one.
2. Place ramekins in steamer over simmering, not boiling water, and steam for twenty to twenty-five minutes. Then remove and cool at room temperature., before covering with plastic wrap and refrigerating.
3. Make a Sabayon sauce by bringing a sauce pan with two to three inches of water to a simmer. Mix egg yolk, verjus, half teaspoon of sugar and the salt and pepper and whisk in a metal bowl. Place this bowl over the simmering water and whisk for five minutes until it is barely warm and very frothy.
4. Remove custards from their molds and put them on chilled plates. Use a melon ball tool or spoon and scoop a quarter-inch deep hollow out of the center of each. Fill with raw quail egg-yolk, and then pour one-quarter of the warm Sabayon sauce over each. Sprinkle with caviar, and serve.

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