5@5 - Chef Susan Feniger
November 8th, 2010
05:00 PM ET
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5@5 is a daily, food-related list from chefs, writers, political pundits, musicians, actors, and all manner of opinionated people from around the globe.

The five o'clock time slot is about to get a heck of a lot spicier.

Susan Feniger is the chef, cookbook author and 30-year restaurant industry veteran behind the Border Grill family of restaurants and more recently, her dearly successful street food venture appropriately named STREET in Los Angeles, California. You may also recognize her from Season 2 of Bravo's "Top Chef Masters," where she competed alongside the likes of Eatocracy mainstays Rick Moonen, Graham Elliot and Marcus Samuelsson.

Much of the positive buzz surrounding Chef Feniger's cuisine applauds her use of the unorthodox ingredients and exotic flavors of world street food. Let's just say her seasoning isn't your mama's average salt and pepper - and she's here to shake things up.

Five Favorite Spices: Susan Feniger

1. Hoja santa
"The first time I ever tasted this was when one of our line cooks brought me a leaf from his mom’s house. I tasted it and about died! That flavor of licorice is just mind-boggling.

Anyways, he brought me a cutting from his mom’s plant, I planted it and for a couple of years it was sort of wimpy - then, it took off. It’s been five years in our backyard and it’s growing wild. It has these huge leaves, with these shoots that just float in the air that form another leaf and another - it’s fantastic looking.

I use it in salsas, to wrap fish and grill, to wrap vegetables and steam in beans. It’s got the most fragrant beautiful flavor that is sweet and flowery."

2. Epazote
"The first time I ate this I was in Mexico. Of course what it’s known for is that you cook it in beans so that you don’t have gas! But what I love is how it has this unbelievable aroma when it’s cooked - especially with mushrooms, it’s perfect partner. But, its essence is sort of like rubber tires. I know that sounds strange but the taste is perfect. It’s earthiness [is an] interesting quality."

3. Curry leaves or sweet neem leaves
"The first time I ate this ... O.K., India and oh my god! I don’t know if I have ever tasted a herb or spice so interesting. You cook this in clarified butter with cumin seeds and finish a pot of orange lentils with this or mung bean dal - you can’t imagine what it is. It’s earth, it’s sweet - sort of. It’s like olive oil, but not. If I had to say which was my favorite, it would be this."

4. Kafir lime leaf
"The first time I ate this, Mary Sue Milliken had brought it back from Thailand and made a Chinese sausage salad for us using this leaf. Talk about something so full of perfume you can’t imagine life without it. It’s that incredible citrus flavor that you can get from yuzu. You add it to palm sugar and fish sauce and lime juice and it changes the whole dish. You muddle it in a cocktail and it takes it from being a wonderful lime cocktail to an exotic treasure."

5. Pandan leaf
"The first time I ate this was just two years ago. My friend Robert Danhi introduced it to me and wow, talk about that perfect bite. It’s a leaf used in the famous “Kaya Toast," this dish known as the Singapore hangover cure - but let me tell you, it’s very, very unique. It’s particularly and incredibly spectacular because it goes from being perfect savory and sweet [in] breakfast, lunch or dinner dishes."

Is there an unlikely seasoning in your regular rotation? Spice things up in the comments below.

Is there someone you'd like to see in the hot seat? Let us know in the comments below and if we agree, we'll do our best to chase 'em down.

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Filed under: 5@5 • Think

soundoff (61 Responses)
  1. Meinburga

    hiho! this web-blog is absolutely good.. I am sure that I`m coming back to see more articles!?

    September 15, 2011 at 10:22 am |
  2. Bernadett

    Good night, this internetsite is really funny. I am sure that Im coming back to read new blogposts!?

    September 1, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  3. Belina Garcia

    Susan (or anyone else)..... I am searching for some fresh"Hoja Santa" (or Acuyo) for my Xmas Tamales Rancheros Veracruzanos but can't locate any here in Las Vegas... HELP!!!! Anyone know where I can find some? Let me know!

    December 18, 2010 at 1:17 pm |
  4. John

    Piment d'Espelette – is one of my favoites. I found out about it in a cooking class, it is the main spice in bouillabaisse. I use it in everything from tomato sauce for pasta to scrambled eggs. It is awesome. Unfortunately, you can only get it online here in the US and it can be hard to find. Sometimes they have it on Amazon, but it can be hit or miss. Like any chili pepper or paprika, it should be kept in the fridge.

    November 10, 2010 at 9:58 am |
  5. Dave

    You don't eat pandan leaves – you use them to wrap Thai food in...

    November 9, 2010 at 10:12 pm |
  6. KnowYrFood

    I just looked up Hoja Santa and found the following;
    The essential oils in the leaf are rich in safrole, a substance also found in sassafras, which has been shown to be carcinogenic in animals. In 1960, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned sassafras bark along with sassafras oil and safrole as flavoring agents because of their carcinogenic properties and the Council of Europe imposed the same ban in 1974, so the safety of flavoring food with hoja santa remains questionable.

    November 9, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      MMmmm. I love me some carcinogens. Especially with Frank's Hotsauce.

      November 9, 2010 at 4:21 pm |
  7. spartyparty

    One note Re. the Curry leaves. There are for added purely to impart flavor like bay leaves. Do not eat them.

    November 9, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
  8. Cousin - O - Confuscius

    Man who take laxative while on internet will download quickly.

    November 9, 2010 at 2:13 pm |
  9. veg head

    I love Kaffir lime leaves, but there is a shortage (ban) from some citrus disease. I am having trouble getting them. Thai food is not the same with lime zest and lime juice.

    November 9, 2010 at 10:54 am |
  10. Confucius

    Confucius Say-Man who Fart in Church,Must sit in own Pew!

    November 9, 2010 at 10:02 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      Also: "He who fishes in another man's well is destined to catch crabs."

      November 9, 2010 at 10:21 am |
    • chris

      also: "man who dreams of eating giant marshmellow wake up with soggy pillow"

      November 9, 2010 at 10:39 am |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants

      Also: "Man who take sleeping pill and laxative on the same night will wake up in deep sh*t".

      November 9, 2010 at 10:52 am |
    • Lil' Confucius

      Also: "Man who go to bed with hard problem, wake up with solution in hand. "

      November 9, 2010 at 1:59 pm |
  11. George

    And here I've thought for over 60 years that, when the essential oils are expressed in the leaves of a plant that we refered to them as herbs, not spices.

    November 9, 2010 at 9:52 am |
  12. Joy

    Can you even find any of this stuff at the local grocery store? I doubt it.

    November 9, 2010 at 9:30 am |
  13. scroo yoo

    This is great if you can afford all that foo-foo crap.some of us just make enough to eat and live.

    Better to eat local anyways

    November 9, 2010 at 8:55 am |
  14. Katy from Jersey

    I will definitely try a couple of these. I am moving more and more toward vegetarianism (except for seafood) and like playing with herbs for unique flavors added to old favorites. I often use bay leaf in bean and chicken dishes...just sautee it for a few minutes in the hot oil with garlic and onion and some 'heat' and the dish is extra special.

    November 9, 2010 at 8:50 am |
  15. Chavin

    Sweet Neem Leaves..yummy!

    November 9, 2010 at 8:43 am |
  16. SixDegrees

    It sounds like all of these herbs need to be used fresh. So their usefulness here in the mid-Midwest is pretty much zero.

    I'm all for appreciating local cuisine, but I'm not in a position to travel thousands of miles to taste it.

    November 9, 2010 at 3:21 am |
  17. Lee

    Also, fry either Italian basil or Thai basil leaves briefly in hot oil. Serve with diced heirloom tomatoes and oysters on the half-shell with a champagne mignonette sauce. The basil takes on a slightly nutty taste with the typical herbal notes. You really need to grow your own epazote; the dried stuff is just flavored dust by comparison – but it is not a decorative plant. Most would mistake it for an ugly weed.

    November 8, 2010 at 10:07 pm |
    • Lee

      Cleopatra is said to have sprinkled her boudoir with cardamon to tempt Marc Antony – not that he necessarily needed the aromatherapy!

      November 8, 2010 at 10:10 pm |
    • 4U Mister

      A weed is just a flower that nobody loves.

      November 9, 2010 at 10:39 am |
      • Kevin

        But I know a bunch of people who love "weed"....

        November 9, 2010 at 6:12 pm |
  18. Snoflinga

    Freshly ground cardamon – I use i with rice, in curries, on bread, and in my coffee. It's amazing! It has a wonderful sweet spicy note similar to cinnamon and nutmeg, but it is full enough to handle savory dishes like a curry. My Swedish family uses it quite often and I was raised on it, I put it in everything I can :) Try a pinch in your coffee grinder, it is divine!

    November 8, 2010 at 10:06 pm |
  19. Lee

    I love kaffir lime leaves and pandanus leaves. I also love lemon myrtle from Australia. Like lemongrass it adds a unique taste without the lemon "Pledge" taste of lemon balm. Freshly ground nutmeg is wonderful, and I only use Tellicherry peppers.

    November 8, 2010 at 10:03 pm |
  20. Fiona

    Hoja Santa is new to me. I'll have to try that one. I'm particularly fond of kaffir lime leaves.

    My favorite spice is probably freshly grated nutmeg. Ther's something immeasurably beautiful about the aroma, and the taste - when the spice is used correctly - is distinctive yet enhancing to other flavors. I don't use it just for baking, but for savory dishes as well. It's not an unusual spice, but some centuries ago it was extremely exotic.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:50 pm |
  21. Lorne

    Kaffir lime leaves are the soul of Thai cooking. They add such a perfume to the dishes and there is NO replacing them – lime zest or juice doesn't come close. But they are not meant to be eaten – if you chomp on one of them it can be quite bitter. Instead, simmer them in coconut milk for curries, or in a mix of fish sauce, palm sugar, peanuts and/or dried shrimp and lime juice for a killer warm dressing for salads or noodles.

    Neem leaves have a somewhat similar place in Indian cooking. They are nicknamed curry leave because they do have a flavor roughly similar to what in the west is called "curry powder". Our western curry powder is NOTHING like the masalas (spice mixtures) that are the foundation of this remarkable cuisine. Stir fry neem leaves along with kalonji (nigella) seeds and/or mustard seeds in some ghee (clarified butter) and then stir in basmati rice that has been washed, soaked and thoroughly drained. Toss the rice with the butter and spices and then add the needed amount of water and cover tightly and steam until done. The flavor of the rice seasoned like this is a revalation. Neem leaves are also commonly used in various different dishes and in tarkas for dals – spices fried in ghee that is then poured over cooked dals(beans) to 'finish' the flavor.

    Pandan leaves are widely used in India also. Essence of pandan is commonly used to flavor sweets like the milk based sweets so common there. I've used the essence to flavor fruit salads, french toast, smoothies and even ice cream. It has an almost vanilla like scent and taste, but weirdly it can add add an elusive but perfect finishing note to savory foods steamed in the leaves. I prefer to use it mostly in sweet dishes. It blends really well with cardamom.

    I'm not at all familiar with Hoja Santa. I'll have to hunt it down and try it. I love learning about new herbs and spices and trying them out. And I used to really love the show that Mary Sue Milliken and Sue Feniger had – it was one of the early shows on the food network and I really enjoyed it.

    I've tried epazote but really didn't care for it's somewhat earthy. almost musty flavor. But I'm not all that familiar with central american cuisines or how/where to use this herb. I've known other cooks who love it.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:44 pm |
  22. Paul Foss

    "but let me tell you, it’s very, very unique." Unique means one of a kind, words like very and somewhat can not be applied without the word becoming meaningless. She either meant to say that it was very, very rare or that it was unique. I don't know how something that basic could get through the editing process.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:40 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Uh – they're quotes. Editing them, even in the interest of grammatical or definitional purity, would be by far the greater journalistic sin here. An interviewer is expected to accurately report what their subject said, and any editor found altering quotes would find their job in jeopardy.

      November 9, 2010 at 3:24 am |
      • KL

        That's what "sic" is for.

        November 9, 2010 at 11:05 am |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        I had to look that up a few weeks ago ([sic]). Kept seeing it in news articles. Now I am all learned.

        November 9, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • Tony

      Get a life! Who cares if a chef's grammar is not up to your standards! If you want to proofread articles, keep your comments to yourself.

      November 9, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  23. dwt

    Leaves are not spices. Still, these are interesting–I've tried a few. Too bad they don't grow in the midwest.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:27 pm |
  24. Motzap2003

    I adore her this woman.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  25. BimotaGrrrl

    I like galanga root in soups.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  26. Galoob


    November 8, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  27. Census Category-Other

    Ahhh. . . Once again white man "discovers" the treasures of Native America and the Far East . . .

    November 8, 2010 at 7:21 pm |
  28. jillmarie

    I love fennel seed. It gives a delicious sausage flavor to pizza, tomato sauces, and works excellent in stuffed mushrooms.
    I added chevril to my salads this week, and found it to be similar to parsley.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm |
    • Dave

      Fennel doesnt taste like sausage, it is 'Italian' sausage that uses fennel etc as a fla

      November 9, 2010 at 10:15 pm |
  29. Sari in Vegas

    Grains of Paradise are awesome, way better than standard black peppercorns..

    November 8, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  30. 4U Mister

    I don't cook with Epazote–but I've been growing it for years, it's a pretty plant, guess if it is not too stinky I could try it in a crock pot of beans. Got the plant from the Seeds of Change web site http://www.seedsofchange.com/, it's not invasive.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:03 pm |
  31. Josh

    Ryan – Question for you, does this idiot get paid to read the article and then have time to even leave the comment? Hu.. not sure.

    November 8, 2010 at 7:00 pm |
  32. Julia Inestroza

    It's rather disturbing all the talk of bringing these leaves in and propagating them. Curry leaves are a a vector for the HLB virus that has the possibility of wiping out California's citrus industry. Growing your own is great, just not at the cost of people's livelihoods.

    November 8, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
    • RedinAustin

      I agree. If you want to grow exotic plants, go ahead, but put them in pots not in the ground and be wary of where their seeds and sprouts end up. That's how we get massive invasive species that choke out native plants. Pots come in all shapes and sizes so there has got to be one out there that would suit your plant, even if it's a tree.

      November 9, 2010 at 10:33 am |
  33. Ryan

    This article looks like it was written at an elementary grade level. Do people actually get paid to write this garbage?

    November 8, 2010 at 6:48 pm |
    • Fiona

      It's a blog. Not an academic journal.

      November 8, 2010 at 7:36 pm |
      • Derpader

        I concur with Fiona.

        November 9, 2010 at 8:55 am |
    • Randy

      So, luckily then you can read the article since it's at the grade school level. Sounds like your idea of gourmet is Ketsup!

      November 9, 2010 at 11:42 am |
    • bucinka8

      I'm with you. Anyone who intends to write in the public sphere needs to know the difference between it's and its. And Fiona, just because it's not an academic journal doesn't mean it's exempt from good grammar. Students learn the difference between those two words in fourth grade. Is that too academic for you?

      November 9, 2010 at 4:40 pm |
  34. Truth

    All these leaves, I don't know if this is about cooking or smoking...:)

    November 8, 2010 at 5:49 pm |
    • RichardHead

      I need some ZigZags-Pronto!

      November 8, 2010 at 5:53 pm |
      • Jdizzle McHammerpants

        I'll bring the Doritos.

        November 8, 2010 at 5:55 pm |
    • Cheech

      Don't bogart the Pandan Leaf

      November 8, 2010 at 6:56 pm |
    • Chavin


      November 9, 2010 at 8:42 am |
  35. Truth

    I will pass thanks...

    November 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm |
    • Jdizzle McHammerpants


      November 8, 2010 at 5:46 pm |
  36. Michael Douglas

    I'd hit it.

    November 8, 2010 at 5:43 pm |
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