Feniger's latest cookbook was inspired by travels in India, Mexico and beyond.
Susan Feniger didn’t invent street food, but she has celebrated global street fare throughout her three decades in the restaurant world. She is perhaps best known as the co-creator, with Mary Sue Milliken, of the popular Border Grill concept, which has three locations and spawned the Border Grill food truck.
In 2009 Feniger opened her first solo venture, Street, where global small plates are the order of the day. Her latest cookbook, Susan Feniger’s Street Food (Clarkson Potter 2012), is a natural outgrowth of her passion for casual international flavors. We spoke with her about how this casual style of cooking and eating is transforming restaurant menus.
What are your favorite street food destinations?
That’s such a challenging question. I would have to say probably my heart would be in India, which probably influenced my food career more than anywhere else. I trained in French kitchens for so many years at CIA and in the South of France. But I took my first trip to India in 1981, and honestly it was such an incredible experience for me in terms of flavors that I had never tasted, the cotton materials, the pots and pans, walking through a market seeing all the spices and colors. During my first trip to Mexico I found myself very drawn to strong flavors; that shaped my career and moved me away from the French kitchen also. After Mary Sue and I took our first trip Mexico in 1984, we started Border Grill.
There is something about eating in the street, off a stand, being in some cool neighborhood where someone is cooking in an alley….there is an inspiration that I don’t find that often when just eating in restaurants. There is a connection with people. I like eating in tiny little places or on the street—if it’s great food, you don’t care if it’s fancy. You end up forming great relationships with people. You find out about cultures in a way you don’t get when you eat in a fancy restaurant.
Food is about sitting, enjoying flavors, talking about politics.
What do you see as the appeal of eating at a food cart?
When you are eating at a stand or visiting a market stand where someone is making a fantastic dish, you can see how they make it. Are they cooking on a hot griddle or fire? Do they sear something? Are they putting mayo or acid on it? One of the first times I visited Mexico I watched someone making a taco. I saw him drizzling it with olive oil, squeezing lime juice on it, adding a slaw, maybe some caramelized onions. It gives you a sense that it’s going to be an interesting dish. There’s something very authentic about this experience that I love.