Susan Feniger has eaten at food stalls and markets around the globe in search of authentic flavors and inspiring dishes. Her eating adventures inform the menu at her L.A. restaurant STREET, as well as the stories and recipes in her recently released cookbook Street Food. Here, she shares some of her favorite travel and food experiences.
Talk to Susan Feniger on Wednesday, August 1 at 11 a.m. PST on our Facebook page. She’ll be chatting about about how to track down the best street food around the globe, from India to Vietnam.
“My two loves are people and food. There’s the wonderful place where they intersect and it’s not the one you might think, where people gather around the table and break bread together. My love is more about the way the culture of an area informs its cooking, and what I learn when I converse in the language of food.
That’s why travelling off the beaten path has always been more appealing to me than eating in a restaurant. I find that restaurants are distilling down the very thing I want to make contact with—that original, authentic, directly from the hands of the cook who’s been making a dish for generations food. No frills, no waiters, just that cook … and me. Even if we can’t communicate with words, even if chaperoned by a guide or translator, we’re still conversing in a language we both know and love. And it’s that exchange that inspires me, and it’s what I try to bring back to my restaurants in Los Angeles.
I’ve had many standout travel experiences: The very old man selling peppers in the market in the mountains in Turkey. I asked, through my guide, if the peppers were hot and the man indicated “no.” I bit in and my head almost exploded. That old man laughed so hard he almost fell off his stool—a Turkish food joke at my expense.
At the Bengali market in Delhi, at 7a.m., I discovered the dahi vada stand because of the line of people waiting. They were all stopping for a breakfast snack on their way to work. Dahi vada is made of Urid daal (the inside of the bean) fried into a fritter, chilled, and served in a cup of yogurt seasoned with garlic, onion, mustard seed, curry neem leaf and chiles. It’s all topped with a tamarind chutney and cayenne pepper. It was so delicious it made it onto the menu at Street when we first opened. But it was inspired by the conversations with locals while waiting in line at a food stand.
Phuong, the owner of Phuong’s Banh Mi street stand in Hoi An, Vietnam, sat in the heat with me as we ate her delicious banh mi sandwiches made of sliced roast pork with crispy pork skin, pork pate, pickled carrot slaw, scrambled egg, all sandwiched into a bun. We fanned ourselves and talked about food and children. Afterwards, her two teenage daughters jumped on their motorbikes and led me to a riverside snail cafe. It had tiny river snails, cooked in a sauce of garlic, mint cilantro, Thai basil and chili peppers, served on a plate with a stack of fresh rice pancakes and toasted rice paper. Two toasted rice papers on either side of a fresh, soft rice pancake, all crushed together, spoon on the snail herb mixture, roll it all up like a tortilla and dip into a sweetened fish sauce called nuoc cham.
At Cho Lon Market in Ho Chi Minh City there was a stall serving just kimchi and it was some of the best pickled vegetables I’ve tasted. She made me pancakes topped with kimchi and hot mustard. It combined my favorite flavors of hot, sour, and slightly sweet.
People often ask how I know which stall or stand in a market is the best. If you see a busy stand with people in line that means they’re doing something right. My number-one rule of thumb is to make sure the place looks busy. I think Americans have a fear of eating street food abroad. I’ve never worried about that. I tell people who are nervous to make sure the food is cooked. If you can look into the stall and see where they are washing the pots or pans look to see if the water is clean or dirty.
My reward for traveling and eating off the street is not only travelling and eating off the street, but also the people you meet and the experience of getting a glimpse into someone’s home, culture and life with food as your guide.”