`Susur A Culinary Life' by Hong Kong / Toronto Chef Susur Lee and a number of co-authors may be the apotheosis of the attractively pretentious tabletop culinary book. It is at least as attractive as Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's latest book and even has a few things of value over `Nobu Now'. It's first pretension is the fact that it is bound as two books, joined at the spine, as if it were two Siamese twins. Since it is impossible to separate the two books without ruining the value of this $50 list volume, and yet you simply cannot use the recipes in the second half without the pantry recipes in the first, this dual binding is purely for show, contributing to little except the cost of the book and the inconvenience of using the two parts of the book together. Not only that, the index for both `volumes' is in the second half, so the first half looses much of its value with it's index detached.
Reading this book has strong similarities to watching the Food Network show, `Iron Chef America'. Unless you happened to be a chef with major pretensions to serious `haute cuisine', you would simply never want to reproduce the recipes you see being conjured up by these very seriously talented and experienced chefs. Why in the world would you ever, for example, want to obtain a compressed air pump to assist in making Peking duck within an hour or screw a piece of fatback to a cedar plank to infuse it with the cedar taste? Susur Lee even presents the same persona as `Iron Chef' star Masaharu Morimoto, although I suspect Susur Lee is one or two cuts above Morimoto in overall culinary creativity.
The first of the two volume halves is made up of five essays written about Susur Lee in the third person by Jacob Richler, with credit for `creation' given to Sara Angel and to photography by Shun Sasabuchi and Edward Pond. I sense these essays loose a lot in being written in the third person. Even though Michael Ruhlman has done a lot of the writing for Eric Rippert (`A Return to Cooking') and Thomas Keller (`Bouchon', `The French Laundry Cookbook'), but in neither of these books do we feel removed from the real source of culinary inspiration springing from the imagination and thinkings of Rippert and Keller.
The five essays are largely chronological, but they start with `Elements of Taste 2000-2005', followed by `Hong Kong: French Lessons 1974-1980', `Local Hero: Lotus 1980-1997', and `Singapore: Five Thousand Years of Eating 1997-2000', only to return to the present with `The Susur Pantry 2000-2005'. By far the most important chapter in the first volume is the last, `Basic Recipes and Glossary'. The Glossary is fair and probably worthless if you have the `Larousse Gastronomique' or any other good culinary encyclopedia. The `basic recipes' are essential to understanding Susur Lee's recipes in the second half of the book, as they are specifically cited as ingredients to almost every recipe.
The second half of the book consists exclusively of 57 recipes for entrees. There is NO table of contents for these recipes and they appear in no logical order I can fathom regarding course or ingredient. Most are somewhere between the size of an appetizer and the size of a conventional main course.
As I said above, virtually all the recipes are impractical for one or more reasons. These are:
1. The recipes use ingredients that are difficult to obtain in many parts of the country such as fresh abalone, skate wing, and periwinkles.
2. The recipes use ingredients that are expensive such as truffles, foie gras, and fresh porcini mushrooms.
3. The recipes use an inordinately large number of ingredients, such as recipe 2.11, which uses 56 individual ingredients in six sub-recipes, with four of those sub-recipes using four other recipe preparations from Book 1.
4. The recipes call for some techniques which are probably beyond the patience of anyone but a professional, such as `frying' a squab by pouring very hot oil over the skin while holding the carcass over a bowl of hot oil for six or more minutes. And that was for just one serving! I could hardly believe it when Morimoto did that on `Iron Chef America' for 10 minutes, but that was for four servings from a single bird!
It is important to say that there are things of value to be found in this book, if you are a really serious foodie or a culinary professional. First, the photography of the finished dishes is exceptionally good, and, there is a photograph for every dish, and, the photograph appears alongside the recipe in almost every case. The exceptions are few enough not to be annoying. Second, the modularity of the recipes has much to teach the serious professional chef. This technique amounts to a graduate course in the ideas put out by Ming Tsai in his book, `Simply Ming', although Ming Tsai's presentation is much more friendly to the home cook. Third are the very same techniques I cite as being impractical for the home chef. While these may not be appropriate to the routine kitchen, they are a source of ideas to the ambitious chef who wants to know what the most adventuresome professionals are doing.
I am really hard pressed to decide between three and four stars. This is even more inaccessible than Nobu's books to which I gave four stars, yet it has some things which may actually be more interesting and valuable to the professional.
So, I give it four stars with a stern warning to the casual cookbook buyer that this is really a rather expensive investment written primarily for professionals and dedicated amateurs. But, if what you want is a conversation piece cookbook, this will fit that purpose pretty well.
Recommended to professionals.