Know Your Chef: Susan Feniger of Street

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Chef Susan Feniger of STREET and Border Grill in Los Angeles will be participating in From Farm to Table: A Makahiki Festival on Sept. 8 at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. At the grand tasting, Feniger will be serving chilled Korean noodles with green sriracha and grilled skirt steak.

Feniger will also be a part of the Girls Got Game! Sunday brunch on Sept. 9 at the Hyatt Regency in Waikiki, where she will be serving Burmese melon salad and sesame bananas with coconut "kaya" jam. 

Feniger's food reflects the experiences from her world travels, and the dishes she has planned for the Hawai'i Food & Wine Festival is no different. A short 10-minute interview quickly turned into 30 as we discussed travels, ingredients and food trends.

Here's the transcript from my conversation with Feniger:

Morita: You mentioned throughout your questionnaire how your travels have inspired your food, and it seems to be reflected most in your restaurant, STREET. Is there anything particular from your travels that most manifests itself at STREET?

Feniger: Probably the first trip that ever influenced me was in high school, when I went to Holland. I grew up in Toledo, Ohio, which wasn't the food center of the world, that's for sure.

Morita: That's quite a change going from Toledo to Holland.

Feniger: Yes, exactly. To this day, one of my favorite things is eating crispy french fries with mayonnaise and a squeeze of lime, and that was something I remembered from being in Holland. I would be with my Dutch sisters and riding our bikes into town. On Sundays, there would be a guy at one of the little markets selling French fries with a dollop of mayonnaise on it.

Morita: I'll have to try that with lime.

Feniger: Oh yeah, it's the best. He may have also done it with a lemon. I'm not sure, that was a long time ago.

And then I ended up in Israel. There was a time there when I was working at a kibbutz with my two friends. We had no money and were camping on beaches and going around by bus and eating street food in Israel. So this was going on, and then I took my first trip to India probably 30 years ago, and absolutely fell in love with the food and flavors.

All of my training had been in the French kitchen. I had gone to the Culinary Institute and had been working in French restaurants. And had worked in the South of France for a year. At that point, I was in my twenties. I had only seen the French kitchen. So when I took my first trip to India, that absolutely opened my eyes and I really think awakened in  me a new set of senses. I realized that there was a spiced palate that I was completely drawn to in every way. I don't think that I used ginger a lot or cumin or turmeric or different chilies.

It was really the opposite end of the French kitchen. In the French kitchen, where it was about making beurre blancs, Madeira sauces and veal stocks to then all of a sudden working with different curies and cumin seeds and tamarind. That really opened my eyes from what I had experienced the previous five years of my professional training.

That was just the very beginning of my branching out. That was 1981.

Then in 1984, Mary Sue (Milliken) and I took our first trip to Mexico and started to explore the Latin kitchen. Now, I'm seeing a whole other direction. Certainly some similarities to the Indian kitchen.

Morita: A lot of spices.

Feniger: All of a sudden, there's achiote and epazote, oja santa, anchos and chipotle. These were ingredients in the early '80s that you never saw much of or certainly you never tasted in Mexican restaurants in this country.

It was interesting when we opened our first Border Grill. The perception of Mexican food was that it was all butter or cheese and beans.

Morita: Yeah, that Tex-Mex.

Feniger: What was really interesting was that out produce bill just shot up because our menu was so fish and produce focused. That was the cuisine that I don't think many at that time explored in this country.

Morita: Was it difficult for you to bring in product when you first started out. Back in the '80s, there were probably not a lot of places that were bringing authentic ingredients.

Feniger: For sure not. Certainly like with the Indian market. I became very close with the small little Indian markets like the Samosa House, which was were you could get those ingredients.

I would also bring back ingredients from India. So, the Veteran's Hospital had 15 acres in the middle of Brentwood. They were beginning their horticulture therapy program. They started growing produce where the vets could learn how to get back into society and have a trade. So, I would bring black mustard seeds back with me  from India, and they would grow mustard seed sprouts for us, or daikon radish sprouts. That was one way we got certain products. We also worded with out produce company to source out where could we find ancho chilies, chipotle chilies, achiote, but that took a good five years to really start to source other than us having to go to tiny individual markets before it got to a point where we could have these ingredients delivered. Between 1981-1987 was really a challenging time for sourcing ingredients. Not because it was difficult to find the ingredients, but that you couldn't find them to be delivered.

I took many trips after that to India, where I just felt like those initial trips back in my 20s and early 30s. Those trips for me really influenced my passion for going away from the French kitchen and into exploring cuisines from other parts of the world. After City restaurant, which explored a lot food from around the world, Mary Sue and I then focused our energies on Mexico. This was around 1985, which is when we had the Food Network show. We really started to focus Border Grill on the Latin kitchen, which alone was fun to explore and has been something that I have been very passionate about.

Morita: Most probably know you and Mary Sue through your "Two Hot Tamales" show, but I always preferred "Tamales World Tour," because it showed you two out of the kitchen. For a lot of people in the early days of the Food Network, this was probably their first exposure to cuisine outside of the standard French, Italian and Asian markets that they were used to.  

Feniger: Absolutely, I agree.

Morita: Everyone is sort of familiar with things like sushi, but not a lot of people had seen street food from India and Thailand.

Feniger: I was actually just having a conversation this morning about how over the last 20 or so, French, Italian, Mexican, Chinese has been raised to a different level in this county. However, there are all these other incredibly interesting sophisticated cuisines out that that till this day that Americans are barely learning about. Even on our STREET menu, for example, we have dal puri, paani puri, vada dumplings. Those are all Indian street food that people are not familiar with outside of Indian markets.  

Morita: Your new cookbook was released on July 17. Are there any previews that you can give so that we know what to look forward to?  

Feniger: Yes, I am very excited about it. It's called "Susan Feniger Street Food."

Morita: Is there anything that you can tells us about it?

Feniger: I'm really excited about it because this is the first book that I have done that is full with color photography. For some reason, all the other books that Mary Sue and I did never had photography. So this was such an amazing experience.

We shot it all at our house. Kajsa (Alger), my partner at STREET, and I did all the recipe testing. Liz (Lachman), my other partner at STREET as well as my partner in life, helped me to write all the stories. We really wanted to make this a book for people who didn't cook, but loved to read about travel. There are three or four different travel stories that talk about out experiences. The recipes that are accessible and easy, but are also very eclectic to give people the opportunity if they want to entertain at home, to go away from a traditional menu. They might try the tatsutagi fried chicken with spicy yuzu or curry sweet potato pancakes, or they may try the bananas with Kaya, which is one of the dishes I will be serving at the brunch for the Hawai'i Food & Wine Festival.

Morita: Are you going to use chicken eggs or duck eggs?

Feniger: Probably chicken eggs for this because it's going to be a buffet and people are going to be going by. We're not doing the kaya toast from STREET. We're going to be serving sesame-coated bananas in a rice flour batter and serve it with the coconut kaya jam and dark soy.

Morita: Mmm.... sounds good.

Feniger: That and the Burmese melon salad with the lime leaf and coconut will be at the brunch.

Morita: That sounds really good!

Feniger: I'm really excited about it. Late one night, I was at a hawker stand in Singapore and had a kaya experience. I tried fried bananas with the kaya and thought, "Oh my god, that is so fabulous!"

Morita: Well, it's banana and coconut. You can't really go wrong with that.

Feniger: No you really can't. I'm working with a banana farmer in Hawaii.

Morita: Do you plan to visit the farm?

Feniger: That would be fantastic. It all depends of timing. I would love that. We haven't defined yet who we'll be working with, but also for the tasting on Saturday night, I'm going to be serving chilled Korean noodles with a green sriracha and skirt steak. Typically we do it with pickled carrots and daikons, but I think that because we have so many great opportunities to work with local farmers...  

Morita: You'll probably change it up.

Feniger: I'm sure we will because there are so many opportunities. I went through the list of farmers they sent me, so there's Ho Farms, which has long beans, squashes and cucumbers that might be interesting in the the dish. There's Twin Bridge Farms asparagus that might be cool. I didn't really see melons on  the list, but the Kamiya Gold papayas might be good in the Burmese melon salad with the coconut, peanuts and lime. That should be pretty delicious. Then the skirt steak is from Kuahiwi Ranch. I saw that they had beef so I wanted to utilize that.

Morita: Kuahiwi Ranch is on one of the Neighbor Islands and were very integral in getting local beef back into the market here in Hawaii.

Feniger: Oh how fabulous!

Morita: For a long time, all of out beef was being brought from the Mainland, but then Michelle Galimba, who is one of the owners of Kuahiwi Ranch, got together with the other ranchers in Hawaii and said, "We're growing cattle here, so why can't we have locally grown beef in restaurants and markets here?"

Feniger: Absolutely.

Morita: Before, they were sending it all to the Mainland because we didn't have any kind of meat processing here in Hawaii. So they just got together and said, "We're going to do this." Locally grown beef is a lot healthier for you. It tastes a lot better, and a lot of restaurants latched on to the idea and they changed the market so that now we can get locally grown beef in the stores.

Feniger: I'm going to do those chilled Korean noodles with that, and then Hamakua Heritage looks like they have an amazing variety of mushrooms that would be really fantastic with those noodles.

Morita: Having written a cookbook devoted to street food, it begs the question, what is your favorite street food?

Feniger: Boy... I tell you, I love while in Hawaii to be able to explore some. That would be very fun.

Morita: There's quite a few things that are popping up here in Hawaii. We do have an active food truck culture.

Feniger: Is it more about the trucks than it is about the street stands?

Morita: We have a few street stands in Waikiki. We're just starting to get into the food windows. There are a few places opening late at night after the bars have closed so that you can stroll by the windows and get something quick to eat.

Feniger: Are the trucks serving traditional street food from that, or is it truck food from everywhere?

Morita: It's from everywhere. It started out from the taco trucks and from there it branched out so we have trucks that serve pies, trucks with cupcakes and cookies... pretty much anything you can think of.

Feniger: Are there any trucks that are specific?

Morita: To the area?

Feniger: Yeah

Morita: There are a few Hawaiian food trucks. We have some Korean trucks, and not the Korean tacos, but like actual Korean-style food.

Feniger: If I were to say what's my favorite street food... You know I hate to say it. It's almost like every place I go becomes my favorite at that moment. I would say that it's probably Indian street food, although, I love the street food in Mexico. There's nothing better than walking into town in the middle of the night and getting an incredible taco on the street. You can't beat that, but when you are walking the streets in India, there are carts everywhere. People just cooking things on the barbecue. I think something like del puri is one of my favorites that you can find all over the streets. I love those. It had all of the flavors that I'm drawn to.

But we were in Vietnam a few years ago, and I fell in love with the Vietnamese street food. The noodle dish that I'll be serving is kind of a version of that we ate there. Then I'm in Singapore and kaya toast. It's hard to beat kaya toast. The dish that's most talked about on our STREET menu is the Singapore hangover cure, kaya, the coconut jam served with a soft cooked fried egg

Morita: I'll have to remember that and give it a try sometime.

Feniger: Yeah for sure.

Morita: Thank you very much for your time. This was a great interview. You really do love your street food.

Feniger: I do! Absolutely! I can't wait to come to Hawaii. Maybe I can come a day early and go explore some of the local interesting places. That would be pretty exciting.

Morita: Oh yes, those little mom and pops are always great.

Feniger: Yeah! Yeah!

Morita: Thank you very much and I look forward to meeting you at the Hawai'i Food & Wine festival.

Feniger: Thank you Ed, Thanks so much!

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