Suzanna Foo
Chefs

Susanna Foo

Susanna Foo Bio

Susanna Foo Chinese New Year festivities, celebrating the Year of the Ox, begin February 7th, 1997. Recalling her memories of childhood New Year celebrations in Northern China and Taiwan, Susanna Foo, James Beard award-winning cookbook author and owner of the outstanding Susanna Foo Chinese restaurant in Philadelphia, says:

“Whatever their celestial sign, all the celebrants of Chinese New Year rejoice in this happiest day and most important festival on the Lunar calendar. The New Year celebration usually lasts seven days and the homes and streets are radiant with exploding fireworks and dazzling strings of lights. The mighty dragon leads its ever popular parade and visits each business to kill evil and bring renewed prosperity.”

And it is childhood experiences that, according to Foo, form tastes. Her own childhood was filled with a myriad of experiences and flavors. Born in inner Mongolia, in a region known for it’s noodle dishes (and in a town no longer on the map), a move to a Taiwanese coastal town that was also surrounded by farmlands introduced her to an abundance of fresh seafood and vegetables. And, her father’s military career (as a soldier and later a general) in Chiang-Kai-Shek’s army exposed Foo to Western culture.

All these outside influences came together in the Foo kitchens, where cooking was a family affair. Her mother taught her to appreciate light, delicate food, and her elderly grandmother showed her how to make noodles and dumplings (especially useful since her father didn’t like rice). Later, her mother-in-law taught her Hunan-style cooking, while her cousin introduced her to Chinese northern-style cooking. With all these styles, vegetables were, and still are, central. She writes, “As they were throughout my childhood, vegetables are the star attractions of my meals.”

While open to new ingredients, Foo is, at heart, a traditionalist. In the introduction to her beautiful book, Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine, she writes, “Everything I cook is based on what I remember from childhood. There is no need to “improve” the classical dishes ­ they have been popular for thousands of years. But a good cook should be open-minded.”

And never can a cook be more open-minded than for a celebratory meal. To celebrate Chinese New Year at home, Susanna Foo might serve “Honeyed” Nuts; Pork Dumplings with Soy-Ginger Sauce; Orange Beef with Sun-Dried Tomatoes; Eight-Treasure Duck; Warm Rice Pudding; and Poached Pears with Ginger.

We celebrated Chinese New Year on the Web with a chat with Susanna Foo, on Tuesday, February 3, here is the transcript of that chat with this celebrated maestro of Chinese Cuisine.

Susanna Foo Chats It Up

FrederickCooke
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FrederickCooke
Welcome to the CuisineNet chat series. Tonight we will be talking with Susanna Foo, cookbook author and chef at Susanna Foo Cuisine Restaurant in Philadelphia. We will be relaying your questions to Susanna over the phone tonight — we’ll be entering her responses under the alias “susanna foo.” Welcome to the chat Susanna!

susanna foo
It’s good to be here — thanks — this is my first time on-line.

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Kian
Hi Susanna, Kong Hee Fat Choi!

susanna foo
Happy New Year!

Kian
Hello Susanna Foo are you really a award winning cook?

susanna foo
Well, I guess so. I won a James Beard award for best international cookbook, and my restaurant was nominated but didn’t win. At the awards, I thought to myself — it doesn’t matter if I win or lose — but, then when they were announcing all the winners I thought I’ll DIE if I don’t win!

FrederickCooke
Are there any dishes that you traditionally prepare for Chinese New Year?

susanna foo
Yes, I like to prepare a whole fish because the tradition of the fish means more prosperity and good luck. And I always have dumplings. My family has always had dumplings on New Year’s morning because they’re the shape of ancient gold. And we always have lots of food. And since this is the year of the ox, I’ll definitely have beef.

ruby
Do you usually serve dishes according to the year?

susanna foo
I wouldn’t serve snake or rat or dragon!

ruby
What year were you born?

susanna foo
I was born in the year of the goat — it’s not a good year for women, and my grandmother thought I would never marry because I was born in that year.

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Kian
Susanna…are you from Japan?

susanna foo
No, I’m not from Japan. I’m from northern China. People may know the area because it wanted to be independent but China wouldn’t let them.

FrederickCooke
What types of grain are grown in Northern China? Rice? Wheat?

susanna foo
The weather is very cold in northern China, so you can’t grow any rice. The staple grain is wheat, so there’s noodles, pastas, and flat breads — steamed and fried — and lots of other grains like barley. There’s also a lot of corn and corn flour — corn flour mixed with wheat flour makes a bread that is very hard, very dense. The corn is freshly harvested and very sweet.

susanna foo
We don’t bake bread, though, because we don’t have the ovens to bake it in.

ana
What sorts of dishes do you make with corn? I don’t think I have ever had anything at a Chinese restaurant that I knew had corn in it–other than those baby corn things.

susanna foo
In this country you have really good corn — in Taiwan and northern China, there’s nothing like the corn here. When I cook I use a lot of corn, but Chinese restaurants here don’t. When I was growing up, freshness was the most important thing. I won’t use canned anything, but most Chinese restaurants here don’t use fresh produce, the wonderful produce that’s available here. I think the best crabmeat is here, too — like in New England. It’s here and we don’t use it at home. I like to use the beautiful foods that are here instead of using something canned that mimicks what we had in China. I guess you could say that I cook in the traditional style, I use fresh ingredients, and Chinese restaurants here cook with traditional ingredients — even if they’re canned.

FrederickCooke
How important is presentation in cooking?

susanna foo
Presentation is very important. For the Chinese, the first thing is the eye, and then the smell, so for Chinese cooking, the colors, smell and taste have to all work together to make a good dish.

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FrederickCooke
Are there any Chinese restaurants in New York that you would recommend highly?

susanna foo
In New York…when I come to New York, I go to different top restaurants. Today we went to Chinatown — there’s a place where they steam the soup for hours so the flavor is very concentrated, and we always go there, but I can’t remember the name of it. As for non-Chinese restaurants, I liked Bouley (now closed), Le Bernardin, Lespinasse and Aureole. Every time I come to New York it makes me feel like I have to work harder to make my food better.

Guest
I am very much in accord with your choices of NY restaurants. We’ll be celebrating at Le Bernardin next week. Do you have any favorite dishes there?

susanna foo
At Le Bernardin — once I had sea bass with caramelized sauce and shiitake mushrooms — they change all the time, though. Everything is wonderful.

FrederickCooke
Do you think that the recent surge in popularity of Fusion/Pan Asian restaurants in the U.S. shows that the American palate is becoming more and more discerning, more interested in the flavors and the subtleties of taste of Asian cuisine?

susanna foo
I think that because China opened up and Thailand and Vietnam opened up business people started traveling, Americans started touring, and immigrants started coming –. Americans started touring, and immigrants started coming — there was a lot of exchange. And, It’s a simple fresh cooking that has a lot of spices. Supermarkets now are carrying more Chinese ingredients — every market carries bok choy and napa cabbage and ginger. When I first came there was none of that.

Kian
Susanna, the cantonese celebrate the new year with “Yue Sheng” which is a raw fish dish. This is is supposed to bring in prosperity. Is there any dishes like that in the Northern Chinese New Year celebration

FrederickCooke
What is the difference between your food and what most people consider standard Chinese cuisine?

susanna foo
I really emphasize freshness and simplicity in my cooking. Also, my menus change for the seasons — now I’m using roots, lamb and venison — but in the summer we sell more fish — seafood is 70% of my sales and game and meat are 30%.

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Guest
Sorry you are on against such competition: the President, OJ and Susanna Foo. What a lineup!

susanna foo
That’s ok, being up against the President and OJ!

Guest
What are some of your best fish dishes?

susanna foo
I like to make salmon, American snapper — the meat is very white and moist. I like sea bass, for me it’s the best fish in the U.S., but I like pike too, from the Midwest — when I was in Michigan, I had it fresh. I also like big-eyed tuna and blue fish if they’re fresh from the shore. I actually like a lot of fish. My parents didn’t really like fish because they’re from northern China, so I always ate all the fish when I was young — my grandmother thought that I wasn’t a nice girl because I always had lots of fish bones on my plate!

FrederickCooke
Do you recommend beer or wine with Chinese cuisine? If wine, do you have any recommendations?

susanna foo
I like Chardonnay and Merlot. The problem with most Chinese restaurants is msg — it numbs your toungue, so you can’t taste the wine. At my restaurant, since we don’t use msg, the wine cellar is growing all the time. In particular, though, I do like Chardonnay with Chinese food. I don’t like wines with perfumey flavors.

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ruby
Florence Fabricant has commented that you use French techniques in your cooking. How do you use those techniques?

susanna foo
As for using French techniques, I use them for making sauces and stocks because they taste better. The Chinese will use a whole chicken for stock — but that’s not good for a restaurant because the cost is very high, and you can’t apply it to the restaurant. I add vegetables and flavoring to the stock , which the Chinese don’t do. I also use French sauces to keep the sauces standard. I don’t have to do that at home, but at the restaurant it has to be consistent, and that’s why I use French techniques for stocks and sauces.

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cece17
What type of fillings do you use in your egg roll? Have you ever heard of Yukimondo?

Kian
cece17. Is Yukimondo a root vegetable? In the Fukian, the spring roll that is not fried is filled with a type root vegetable. Susanna, maybe you’ll know the roll by the name of “Poh pia.”

cece17
Yukimondo is a filled and deep fried wonton, served with soy or teriaki sauce. I have a Korean friend who makes these wonderful appetizers.(dim sum)

susanna foo
So yukimondo isn’t Chinese?

ana
Have you developed desserts to serve at your restaurant? If so, what are a couple of your favorites?

susanna foo
In the beginning I tried to serve Chinese desserts like caramelized bananas and 8 treasure rice pudding, but people thought the rice pudding was too heavy. Now my desserts are very French. I have a French pastry chef — we serve a lot of chocolate mousse, and the most popular one is a banana chocolate mousse cake. In China, often we don’t have dessert, just tea and oranges or mangos and star fruit. But Chinese people like Western desserts anyway. In Taiwan there are bakeries everywhere.

Guest
I have tried to bake spring rolls instead of frying them to reduce the fat content. They tasted wonderful but they never really browned. I tried spraying them with vegetable spray and lightly brushing them with oil, but it didn’t help. I used a 400 degree oven. I would appreciate any suggestions.

susanna foo
For spring rolls, the texture has to have a contrast, and if you bake them, you don’t get the crunchy skin — but you can pan sear them to reduce the fat and still have the texture of crispy outside and tender and moist inside.

Virtual Gourmet
There are so many authentic Chinese ingredients, spices and sauces now available in ethnic groceries. Do you recommend any particular products for use in American or European cuisine? Also, are there any brands or specific products that you recommend American cooks to buy?

susanna foo
As for Chinese ingredients, try star anise and szechuan pepper, a pepper corn with a different, very flavorful perfume. I usually roast the pepper and rub it on chicken — it’s much more flavorful than regular pepper. You can use star anise in chicken stock, and dumpling wrappers for Italian ravioli with cheese inside.

susanna foo
I don’t like to use Chinese sauces because the flavors are too strong.

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cece17
Susanna, there are so many different kinds of rice, which do you like the best? I bought by mistake “sweet rice,” any ideas how I use it?

susanna foo
Sweet rice is wonderful, the best way to cook it is to soak it in warm water for 4 hours, then drain it, and then steam it without water for 20 minutes — and it’s perfect. You can use it for risotto — if you soak it and drain it, it cooks very fast, and it’s wonderful. Sautee shallots, add bacon, cheese, and mushrooms, and it’s really wonderful.

susanna foo
with sweet rice, though, you really do have to know how to use it.

cece17
Thanks Susanna, I appreciate the information.

Kam
Chinese people tend to enjoy luxury food, like Shark fin, bear palm, monkey brain. What is your opinion on that? Do you think they are really better food than economic food, like chicken, beef or pork?

susanna foo
Well, I’ve never had monkey brain. I like shark fin, though, because it has a very rich flavor — in a soup it’s very concentrated and rich, and the shark fin is really good. And bear paw, too, I’ve never had, so I don’t know. I think the people in Canton like to try exotic animals, but in northern China people don’t have as much so they don’t try as much. I’ve never tried snake, for example, because I always think, why would I try snake when there’s already so much good food to have.

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FrederickCooke
You use some nontraditional ingredients in your cooking, like balsamic vinegar, vodka, olive oil, basil and coconut milk. Why?

susanna foo
I started using non-traditional ingredients like vodka and balsamic vinegar because in China we only had rice wine, and when I got here the rice wine they sold here was cheap and didn’t have any flavor, and I thought that if I used rice wine it would damage the flavor of things. If you use vodka and gin, though, it’ll bring flavors out — they have a sweet, freshness to them, a natural flavor that comes out. In shrimp and fish they take out the iodine taste and brings out the freshness. As for balsamic vinegar, my father is from northern China where they all make their own vinegar — black vinegar — and I don’t really like rice vinegar because they’re sharp and without body. When I first had balsamic vinegar, it smelled like what I grew up with and I loved it — it’s mild and has body. You don’t have to use traditions, you can use what’s wonderful!

Virtual Gourmet
Americans are very familiar with cantonese, szechuan and hunan cuisine. Are there any other regional chinese cuisines that you think deserve more attention? What are their attributes?

susanna foo
Shanghai and northern Chinese cuisines are really good, with their flatbreads, noodles and lightness. Shanghai seafood and braising are wonderful and most Americans don’t know about them.

cece17
What is the best noodle I can buy in the grocery store to make lo mein? Fettucini? luinguini?

FrederickCooke
Well, Susanna has to go now. Thanks everyone for showing up. I hope you enjoyed the chat. We’ll be posting the chat transcript on the site in a few days. Thanks Susanna!

susanna
Good bye for now and thanks very much for asking me all the questions — I hope it helped. I’m glad people came with OJ Simpson and all.

FrederickCooke
Our next chat will be on April 8th at 9 p.m. with Larry Forgione, chef at An American Place in New York. See you here!

Susanna Foo Recipe Highlights

Pears with Ginger

Cold poached pears make a light dessert any time of the year. For this recipe, I add star anise and some fresh gingerroot to the poaching liquid along with the usual cinnamon stick and lemon for a Chinese flavor. A good company dessert, the pears can be prepared a few days ahead. Leftover cooked pears can be served with Berry Sauce, plain or with a scoop of ice cream.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 cups water
  • a cup white wine
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2 2-inch pieces of lemon zest
  • 1 4-inch cinnamon stick
  • 1 2 inch-piece gingerroot, sliced
  • 2 star anise
  • 6 firm pears preferably Anjou or Comice
  1. Place the sugar, water, wine, lemon juice, lemon zest, cinnamon stick, ginger-root and star anise in a saucepan just large enough to hold all of the pears in a single layer.
  2. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring occasionally to dissolve the sugar, and cook for about 5 minutes to allow the spices to flavor the liquid.
  3. Peel and core the pears. You can either leave them whole or cut them into halves. Carefully place the pears in the boiling liquid, adding more water, if necessary, to cover them. Return the liquid to a boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to tow. Simmer the pears gently until they are just tender, 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the ripeness of the pears.
  4. Using a slotted spoon, remove the pears from the liquid and set aside. Increase the heat to high and boil to reduce the liquid to about 2 cups. Strain the sauce, discarding the solids. If serving hot, place the pears in individual serving dishes and spoon some sauce over each.
  5. If serving cold, place the pears In a bowl, pour the sauce over them and refrigerate, covered. The pears will keep for 2 to 3 days in

From Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine: The Fabulous Flavors and Innovative Recipes of North America’s Finest Chinese Cook.

Orange Beef with Sun-Dried Tomatoes

Orange beef is a classic Szechuan recipe in which beef is stir-fried in an infused oil made with oil made with dried orange peel anti dried hot peppers. I love dried orange peel in braised dishes, but I do not like the burnt it takes on in this preparation. When stir-frying, I prefer to use fresh orange zest which gives the finished dish a more delicate and refreshing flavor Sun-dried tomatoes add a slightly smoky note of complexity. I like to serve this in a sandwich with good bread, over white rice or wrapped in Peking Thin Pancakes.

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup sun-dried tomatoes (not oil-packed)
  • 1/2 cup corn oil
  • 4 scallions, cut on the diagonal into 1-inch pieces
  • 2 garlic cloves, chopped fine
  • 2 tablespoons peeled, finely julienned gingerroot
  • I jalapeno pepper, preferably red, chopped, with seeds
  • 1/4 cup chicken or beef stock
  • Coarse or kosher salt
  • Freshly ground pepper

Beef and Marinade

  • I pound flank steak
  • 2 tablespoons brandy
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon corn oil

Orange Zest

  • 8 cups water
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/4 cup finely julienned orange zest (from 1 large orange)
  1. To marinate the beef: place the flank steak on a flat surface and cut in half lengthwise. Cut into 1/4 inch-wide slices on the diagonal, cutting against the grain. Mix the brandy and soy sauce in a bowl. Add the steak: mix. Add the corn-starch and mix well to coat. Add the oil, mixing well to separate the pieces of meat. Let sit at room temperature for 20 minutes or up to 1 hour.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the orange zest: Bring the water and the sugar to a boil over high heat in a saucepan. Add the orange zest and boil for 5 minutes. Drain, rinse under cold water, squeeze dry, and set aside.
  3. Soak the sun-dried tomatoes in warm water for about 10 minutes, or until softened. Cut them into julienne.
  4. In a large skillet or a wok, heat the oil until it is very hot, almost smoking (350 degrees F). Add the steak, using chop sticks or a large fork to separate the pieces as they cook. Once the steak has turned golden, about 2 minutes, remove it from the skillet with a slotted spoon and drain well; set aside.
  5. Remove all but 2 tablespoons oil from the skillet. Add the orange zest, sun-dried tomatoes, scallions, garlic, gingerroot and jalapeno. Cook over high heat for 1 to 2 minutes, stirring, until the garlic is golden. Return the steak to the skillet, add the stock, stir well and cook, stirring, for 3 minutes, until all of the liquid is evaporated. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Transfer to a platter and serve.

serves 2 as a main course or 4 in sandwiches

From Susanna Foo Chinese Cuisine: The Fabulous Flavors and Innovative Recipes of North America’s Finest Chinese Cook.

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