Actress Dana Delany (left) and Susan Feniger
You love sushi, sambal, and spanakopita, but chances are there are still some foreign flavors you haven't met yet. Luckily chef Susan Feniger—the master of deliciously exotic comfort food—is here to make the introductions.
One bite of a dish can send you tumbling back into some half-forgotten memory. But a taste can also bump you gently into the future. Eat something unexpected—mysterious, yes, but also pleasurable—and a shift occurs: You become a little bit new.
Susan Feniger sees this happen every day at Susan Feniger's Street, her Los Angeles restaurant devoted to traditional, handmade street foods from around the world. Guests entranced by some compelling blend of flavors—date and carob molasses drizzled over Syrian lamb meatballs, say, or coconut jam and dark soy sauce on kaya toast from Singapore—shed their cool diffidence and urge the dish on skeptics at nearby tables. Before long, total strangers are sharing bites, followed by life stories, iPhone photos, and Twitter names.
Around the world, street food has long been accompanied by such chance encounters. After all, it's sold in the very place randomness presides: outside, in public, amid the bustle of strangers. But even when Feniger's friends get together in a calmer setting, as they did recently at the Brentwood bungalow she shares with her partner, Liz Lachman, it feels more like a culinary escapade than a cocktail party—as if something remarkable might occur at any moment. And it does: Tamarind-ginger coolers are poured, millet puffs are passed, and an air of fresh amazement washes over the scene. Feniger's food is meant to be not merely eaten but experienced.
It's a sensation familiar to anyone who has sidled up to an outdoor vendor in Marrakech, Mumbai, or Yangon. Street food represents a kind of brilliant smashup of fast food and regional home cooking. Made to order, it is as portable and cheap as a Big Mac. But unlike mass-generated fare, street food is typically prepared from scratch by amateurs, each of whom cooks not only according to his or her culinary traditions but also with idiosyncratic flair, using local ingredients. The best vendors are rewarded with an everlasting procession of customers, from rickshaw drivers to businessmen.
Feniger has been an advocate of authentic regional cuisines for nearly 30 years, ever since she and business partner Mary Sue Milliken started City Cafe on Melrose Avenue in 1981. "It was my favorite restaurant," says actress Dana Delany, recalling the world-party eclecticism of the menu. Feniger and Milliken went on to open Border Grill and Ciudad. In 2009 Forbes dubbed them "the pioneers" in a roundup of leading women in the restaurant world.
Three years ago, Feniger set about developing the menu for Street, her first solo venture. She covered the floor of her house with brown craft paper, filled her living room with ethnic ingredients, and dove headlong into the kitchen, preparing, adapting, and tweaking hundreds of recipes with the help of chef Kajsa (pronounced "Sasha") Alger. Lachman recorded it all on video (go to eatatstreet.com for episodes). "We had a great time, laughing, tasting, waiting for cocktail hour," Feniger says. "There's a lot of passion in those dishes."
For this party, she selected eight favorites from the Street roster, all easy to prepare ahead (save for the final frying of the chicken) and delicious at room temperature, including Burmese melon salad, Japanese-style vegetables, and Asian pears tossed with greens. Feniger herself prefers not to have everything done in advance, however. "I love to be in the kitchen cooking when everyone's hanging out and Liz is telling some great story—she's the best storyteller ever. I'm doing what I like best and people are talking and I'm just taking it all in."
No wonder guests want it never to end: the myriad flavors of faraway lands mixed together in the easy expanse of Feniger's hilltop home. It's the best—not of both worlds, but of this one.
Get the recipes:
Susan Feniger's street food menu
For more information on Susan Feniger's pet charity, the Scleroderma Research Foundation, go to SRFCure.org for details.
From the June 2010 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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