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Cookbook Review

Nothing new about street food, except when made at home

The casual food of many nations — food trucks, street vendors, dumpling carts — is all the rage these days. There’s nothing new about the food, like irresistible and timeless tacos and porchetta and buns. What’s new is the trend of trying to domesticate street food by serving it in a restaurant or making it at home.

Susan Feniger, well known as one smiling, bespectacled half of “Too Hot Tamales” on the Food Network, opened her restaurant, Street, in Los Angeles in 2009. The cookbook that emerged from that venue is finger-licking, bone-sucking good. It’s also adventurous in the extreme, daring readers to go on a scavenger hunt for ingredients and dirty every pan in the kitchen.

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I found myself with a shopping list that included kaffir lime leaves, curry leaves, Korean miso, Japanese mayo, and “kokum” plums, which are black and wizened South Indian dried fruits. (I found them all without going online once, despite not living near an urban center.) Not every recipe offers equal procurement challenges. But many will send you to the most obscure ethnic groceries in your neighborhood.

As is often the case, appetizers are among the most complex, yet most tempting, recipes in the book. Is it worth making the dough, assembling the filling, cooking the marmalade, and then boiling and sauteing Ukrainian spinach dumplings with lemon marmalade and sour cream? Absolutely, though it will take you 90 minutes to find out.

The price in time and effort is still higher for miso-glazed chicken wings with ginger scallion dipping sauce. You have to make the glaze and sauce, and then you have to roast and deep-fry the wings. We ended up doing it on a sweltering day, and it gives you some idea of how insanely good they are that I would do it again in a heartbeat. Those crispy, flavor-layered wings disappeared so fast I was left only with a smeary memory of pure spicy-sticky-sweet religion.

Singapore crab cakes are full of crunchy, un-crabby surprises — cucumber, Thai basil, rice-cracker bread crumbs — but it’s the Singapore red chili sauce, thick with the scent of garlic and fermented beans (add half an hour to make it) that will have you on your knees howling for more.

Even the simplest dishes are drenched and studded with multi-dimensional tastes and textures. A mouthful of couscous tabbouleh with sweet dried apricots, pungent red onion, fistfuls of fresh herbs, bright lemon rind, and crisp salty pistachios is like walking through a Silk Road bazaar.

Curried lentils with Indian dried plums is a spiced hybrid of East and West, numbing arbol chilies mingle with curry leaves, ginger, and the sweet-and-sour plums in an aromatic dal. Chilled soba noodles with spicy orange sesame and tofu are slurpable and citrusy, cool and fast to make.

Sweets are no less innovative. Bland matzo is transformed into a decadent confection, glazed with caramel, chocolate, and halvah. Egyptian semolina cake with lime curd and berries is a fragrant riff on the semolina cakes found across the Middle East. Here they are individual, with lime rind or juice added at every one of the many steps: in the batter, in the syrup for moistening the cakes, in the curd, in the whipped cream. Taken at a run, it’ll cost you a couple of hours at the stove and oven, so you should reward yourself afterward with a honeydew-cucumber cooler. Pale and refreshing, it’s an elixir that’s even better, as Feniger points out, with gin.

Before you go rushing off to buy this book, I should warn you that these recipes are well-observed and thoughtful, but not foolproof. In nearly every one I had to make a small tweak, or I didn’t and ended up with a delicious but imperfect product. The lemon marmalade sets up rock solid if you take it all the way to “thick and glossy” as suggested. There’s twice as much caramel as you need for the matzo. The crab cakes fall apart, like so many crab cakes. Dumpling dough is fiddly, and the dressing for the soba does not emulsify. Lime curd needs to be strained, as well as the honeydew-cucumber puree. Feniger has a slight tendency to under-explain, so you need to think on your own two feet.

By the end of testing, my book was thoroughly splattered and flecked. The fridge was full of leftover sauces and condiments, and I could hardly face the dishes in the sink. But on the whole, it was worth it. “Street Food” stretched my kitchen horizons and afforded countless new ways to drum up the intense flavors of many lands. Plus, it’s far cheaper than a round-the-world plane ticket.

T. Susan Chang can be reached at admin@tsusanchang.com
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