Food: Best Home Cook winner Suzy Lee embraces Cantonese cuisine after her mother’s death

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Suzy Lee, author of Simply Chinese Pictures: PA Photo/Lizzie Mason

Northern Irish cook Prudence talks to Wade about her journey from family takeaways to winning a BBC cooking show.

Things may be exploding for Suzy Lee since winning Best Home Cook in 2020 – she has presented two cooking shows on BBC NI and is now releasing her first cookbook – but that doesn’t mean she’s lost her day left the job.

Lee is still an accountant by trade, saying: “If you ever meet me, I’ll always say I’m an accountant who cooks, because that’s my day-to-day job. I’m still a chartered person.” I’m an accountant, I still have my accountancy business – that’s what brings in the money. Other stuff, as much as it sounds really shiny, it doesn’t pay the bills.”

However, Lee, 38, describes winning Best Home Cook as “life-changing”, saying it has “opened a lot of doors”.

She adds: “Of course when I won the Best Home Cook award, I was like, I can cook. It’s okay to say I can cook, and I know what I’m doing in those dishes. I am what I am showing – because I loved cooking from the age of 16. When my mother passed away, I largely played the role of a mother, so I had to cook properly.”

Lee remembers the December before her mother’s death, when her mother—refusing to cook Christmas dinner—abandoned her. “She literally went, no, I’m going to show you how to use an industrial oven [Lee grew up in a Chinese takeaway]And how not to blow up the kitchen with a gas pan – then you are on your own.

“So I accepted that challenge before Christmas, at age 16. I cooked Christmas dinner for over 40 of my family members—so it was a baptism of fire, but she clearly believed in me. I can do this.

“She came back and forth from our house [to the takeaway], just to check that I was okay, but he let me go on it. I think it was one of those things where she was preparing me for the future, it sounded weird, because within two months she died very suddenly.”

So did Lee’s festive food get the seal of approval? “He just nodded,” Lee says. “In Chinese culture, praise is not a thing … but I got a nod, which meant a lot – that in itself is praise.”

After her mother’s death, Lee’s confidence in the kitchen grew – mainly because she was forced to take on the role of a cook, feeding her 15-year-old brother and seven-year-old cousin.

She started out exploring all kinds of different recipes (many of which she would go on to feature on Best Home Cooks) but she admits she avoided Cantonese food in the beginning. “I found it quite difficult to go down that route,” Lee admits. “Because my mother was my role model in a sense. She was the best [at Cantonese cooking], And I thought I hadn’t learned enough from him, while all the other recipes I could find on the internet, cookbooks, magazines, buy whatever, and play with it – but traditional Cantonese cooking, for me, My mother put it there – and I was like, I can’t repeat this.”

Now, Lee has dedicated his first cookbook to Cantonese food, which “has recipes in broken steps so people won’t be afraid of Chinese cooking”.

Growing up in a Chinese takeaway – Man Lee in Lisburn, which is still going strong – Lee can be dismayed by a negative reputation.

“I think people have this stigma around takeaways, that they’re bad, but really, traditional Chinese cooking tends to have fresh food and fresh ingredients. It’s about getting it really quick … you really Can get good stir fry or chop dipping, and that’s really fresh vegetables and ingredients, where there isn’t a lot of cream or really bad sauces.

“People are thinking, ‘Oh, that’s very high in calories’—but not really. Knowing that it’s fresh vegetables, you’re cooking it really quickly, so you don’t lose out on the nutritional value of the vegetables. are.”

Lee’s book has a takeaway section with recipes including Sweet and Sour Chicken and Spring Rolls, and she adds: “It’s not the best for you, but it’s a treat. That doesn’t mean you can go for sweet and sour chicken and spring rolls.” Eating sour Cantonese chicken – the deep-fried version – every day. It’s all about being responsible.”

She also wants to showcase the uniqueness of Cantonese cuisine compared to other regions of China. “Cantonese food is another string of that whole Chinese story. Cantonese, it’s mainly Hong Kong, so it’s right by the sea. So is the fish, and it’s all about the very fresh food,” she says.

“It’s about using all those flavors — sweet, pungent, but also fresh — and playing with them. I think it tastes a lot cleaner than if you’re going to the north of China. Szechuan food Banana is really about the spices, everything is overly spicy. It’s their culture, but with Hong Kong Cantonese cooking, because you were able to get fresh ingredients, they were making sure those ingredients were a little Sing it with soy—if it’s fresh fish, some ginger, spring onion, and let the dish do its job.”

Simple Chinese by Suzy Lee is published by Hardy Grant, priced at £20. Photography by Lizzie Mason. Available August 18th.