Susan Feniger on Eating (and Crossing the Street) in Southeast Asia
Susan Feniger, one half of the long-loved "Two Hot Tamales" duo (the other half is, of course, Mary Sue Miliken) behind Border Grill, Street, and other Los Angeles institutions, loves Southeast Asia. Her new book, Street Food covers all manner of dishes traditionally found in the region and beyond. Not only did we catch up with her to learn about her favorite places, dishes, and hard-won tips from traveling extensively in Southeast Asia, she did one better; she's working with Fodor's and Intrepid Travel to give away a 10-day trip to Vietnam! (Meaning you could actually use all of the nuggets of info below.)
Details (and the entry form) can be found here, but it includes round trip airfare to Hanoi, Vietnam; hotel, boat, and sleeper train accommodations; a slew of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners; a cooking class and walking tour of Hoi An, an Olympus camera with which you'll capture the whole adventure (nope, not done yet); 2 wheeled backpacks from Timberland; and a signed copy of Susan's new book.
Without further ado—Susan Feniger's take on travels to Southeast Asia. Her answers made our mouths water.
What are your favorite places to travel in Southeast Asia?
Well, I know India is not in Southeast Asia, but I have to include it... Of course I love Vietnam, I just think it's a fantastic place to visit and explore, and I can't wait to go back.
What do you remember best from your first trip to Vietnam?
From the moment we were about to land, you could see the amazing greenery, and how beautiful it was going to be. Then driving into Ho Chi Minh City—never, ever before had I seen so many motorcycles, mopeds, bikes. I honestly have to say, I thought "Oh my God, how do you cross the street here?" But my first true, real impression was how warm the people were, how helpful, how sweet. How incredible the markets were, the produce, the colors, the food stalls, the flavors... absolutely mind boggling.
How did you discover your love of Southeast Asian cuisines?
The flavors from this part of the world have influenced the food we serve and that I love to eat. Over 29 years ago, the ingredients from this part of the world began to creep onto our menu. [We started] with flavors from India, then Thailand, then Vietnam, Malaysia, and Singapore. I think back then I was completely blown away by the powerful spices, and by how much more I was drawn to these flavors than to [those in a] French kitchen (which was where all my training had been from). This opened my eyes to a whole new world, one I fell in love with and have been ever since. It was soulful, romantic, inspirational, and shaped who I am in the food world in a huge way.
What's one dish every visitor to Southeast Asia should try?
What's one thing you think every visitor to Southeast Asia should do?
Must eat on the street, in the neighborhoods, in the markets; don't be afraid to explore and learn about the culture through the food on the streets. You meet people you'd never get to meet, you see life from a different perspective.
Do you have any go-to restaurants in Vietnam?
Ba Do in Hue for the bahn beo: steamed rice cakes with shrimp and pork; Phuong's in Hoi An for the banh mi; and Bahn Xeo 46A in Ho Chi Minh City for bahn xeo.
What are some of your favorite food experiences in the region?
Cam van Dzoan is an amazing cook who does cooking classes outside of Ho Chi Minh City at her home, which is fantastic. I'd do it in a second; she's absolutely sweet, and I loved her daughter! Then, in Ho Chi Minh City, I love the Ben Thanh Market in District 1 and Cholon Market.
What are some ingredients (or non-perishables) that you'd bring home?
In all of the markets, there are great gadgets and things. I loved the amazing colorful plastic spoons, and now we use them at Street. They are small, cool, functional. I could have bought tons more of that sort of thing—great colors of melamine platters, steamers, [and so on]. Also, I love and brought home a number of Vietnamese coffee pots. The markets are fantastic for finding cool things. I also had chef's clothes made in Hoi An. The materials were gorgeous; the fitting was quick and perfect.
Do you have any hard-won, indispensible travel tips for a first-timer to the region?
I will always tell you to not be afraid to explore. I think through food, you open up a world that is so informative and exciting and truly opens the hearts of people who live there. You learn so much about a culture through their food.
Think about your lives, your stories, and memories around food. Friends can always give you recommendations for a great guide, which helps you to navigate and explore into neighborhoods that you might never find. Talk to your chef friends to see if they know anyone who knows anyone who's traveled to various countries. That's a huge help. But I love to go to the markets, not the tourist ones but the local produce markets. Just explore and eat!
What's that? You forgot to click on the sweepstakes link above and don't feel like scrolling? Enter our Taste of Vietnam sweepstakes here, too!
Over her thirty-year food career—from being one of the original Food Network stars and opening Border Grill to appearing on Top Chef Masters and creating STREET—celebrity chef Susan Feniger has continually found inspiration for her renowned cooking in street food carts around the world. In Susan Fenigerâ€™s Street Food, she shares 83 of her favorite recipes with home cooks, giving them a taste of these unexpected, tantalizing dishes.
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