Cinco de Mayo

Building a better taco with global inspiration


Main dish

Kung Pao Chicken Tacos

These days, it seems like anything can be wrapped in a tortilla. Why not spicy, sweet, salty Kung Pao chicken? If you can get a hold of some Sichuan peppercorns, toss a tablespoon or two into the wok along with the chicken for a tongue-numbing buzz. That will give the tacos the flavor of the original dish made in China’s Sichuan province. This recipe serves four people.

6 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into bite-size pieces

3 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce, divided

1/4 cup plus 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch, divided

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1 1/2 tablespoons honey

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 teaspoon sambal oelek (ground fresh chile paste)

1 large garlic clove, minced

3 tablespoons dry-roasted peanuts, coarsely chopped

3/4 cup celery, sliced diagonally (about 2 stalks)

8 (6-inch) corn tortillas

1/3 cup sliced green onions

1/2 medium red bell pepper, thinly sliced

4 lime wedges

Place chicken in a large zip-top plastic bag. Add 1 tablespoon soy sauce to bag and seal. Marinate at room temperature 30 minutes. Remove chicken from bag; discard marinade. Place 1/4 cup corn starch in a shallow dish. Sprinkle chicken evenly with salt. Add chicken to cornstarch in dish and toss chicken to thoroughly coat. Shake off excess cornstarch.

Heat a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon canola oil to pan; swirl to coat. Add half of coated chicken; sauté six minutes or until done, turning to brown. Remove chicken from pan using a slotted spoon; drain on paper towels. Repeat procedure with remaining tablespoon canola oil and coated chicken.

Combine remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons corn starch, remaining 2 tablespoons soy sauce, honey and next 3 ingredients (through sambal oelek) in a microwave-safe bowl, stirring with a whisk until smooth. Microwave at high for 1 1/2 minutes or until slightly thick, stirring twice. Stir in garlic. Combine soy sauce mixture, chicken, peanuts and celery; toss to coat chicken.

Toast tortillas under broiler or on a griddle until lightly blistered, turning frequently. Place two tortillas on each of four plates; divide chicken mixture evenly among tortillas. Top each taco with green onions and bell pepper strips; serve with lime wedges.

Per serving: 418 calories, 19.1 g fat (2.5 g saturated, 8.9 g monounsaturated), 86 mg cholesterol, 25.2 g protein, 39.3 g carbohydrate, 4 g fiber, 531 mg sodium

Source: From “Cooking Light Global Kitchen” by David Joachim (Oxmoor House, $29.95).

Main dish

Korean-Style Beef Tacos

Among Asian chile pastes, Korea’s gochujang is one of the most complex. It’s sweet, spicy, salty, savory flavors come from fermented soybeans that are thickened with glutinous rice, and it is absolutely essential in Korean cooking. You can find the Annie Chun’s brand in most supermarkets, or look for less-sweet varieties in Asian markets. This recipe serves four people.

1/3 cup sugar

5 tablespoons lower-sodium soy sauce

1 1/2 tablespoons gochujang (Korean chile paste)

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

1 tablespoon dark sesame oil

4 garlic cloves, minced

12 oz. flank steak, sliced against the grain into thin strips

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

Cooking spray

8 (6-inch) corn tortillas

Kimchi or quick-pickled cabbage, for garnish

3 tablespoons sliced green onions

Combine first six ingredients in a shallow dish. Add steak to dish; cover. Marinate in refrigerator for one hour, turning once.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat. Remove steak from marinade, and discard marinade. Thread steak onto eight (8-inch) skewers; sprinkle with salt. Place skewers on grill rack coated with cooking spray. Grill two minutes on each side or until desired degree of doneness. Grill tortillas 30 seconds on each side or until lightly charred; keep warm. Place two tortillas on each of four plates, and divide steak evenly among tortillas. Divide the garnishes evenly among tacos and sprinkle with onions.

Per serving: 270 calories, 6.3 g fat (1.6 g saturated, 2 g monounsaturated), 21 mg cholesterol, 18.1 g protein, 37.1 g carbohydrate, 3 g fiber, 568 mg sodium.

Source: From “Cooking Light Global Kitchen” by David Joachim (Oxmoor House, $29.95).

Cox Newspapers

— We tend to snub our noses at the word “fusion” when it comes to food.

After two decades of chefs mashing up every cuisine imaginable to create one too many fried wonton-topped chicken salads, the food professionals who want to be taken seriously have backed away from using the f-word.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped blending cuisines. The truth is, even the most “authentic” foods are the result of combining one food culture with another, says David Joachim, the prolific cookbook author whose newest book, Cooking Light Global Kitchen, explores international cuisines from Chile to China.

Now, instead of calling it fusion, we’re calling it “global food,” Joachim says.

So why are tacos, which we think of as Mexican even though many Central and South American countries also serve them, so frequently fused with other cuisines?

“Tacos are an interesting case study in global cuisine because every culture has some sort of bread wrapped around food,” Joachim says.

Tortillas aren’t that different than pita, which is just a stone’s throw from flatbread.

When people move from one place to another, even one continent to another, they continue to cook the foods of their homeland but start to incorporate some new techniques and ingredients. Over generations, these small changes become widespread, and suddenly no one remembers an Italy in which there was no tomato sauce.

Take tacos al pastor, Joachim says, which is actually a descendant of the Middle Eastern gyro. A wave of immigrants from Iraq and Lebanon moved to Mexico in the first part of the 20th century, and before long, they were putting meat sliced from an upright pit into corn tortillas instead of pitas.

Americans are cooking more globally than ever, Joachim says, either fused with foods they already know or re-creating dishes they’ve tried elsewhere.

“There’s so much flavor available now, thanks in part to the global economy and the skyrocketing interest in food, plus the changes in immigration in our country,” Joachim says. “There’s just so much available in mainstream markets that many [cooks] might not have been aware of even 10 years ago.”

And he’s not just talking about Sriracha: In urban areas, it’s easy to find chile pastes from India, Africa and Asia, or spices like cardamom, turmeric and exotic peppercorns. As soon as you have access to an ingredient like lemongrass, Joachim says, you have access to the flavor of an entirely new cuisine that you previously couldn’t prepare at home.

But don’t expect your dish to taste exactly the same as the street food in Thailand. “You’re making concessions any time you cook outside the home country because the ingredients are slightly different,” he says.

The quest for authenticity, though noble, is almost always quixotic because “authentic” only exists in the minds of those seeking a singular beginning. Food, however, is a collective, collaborative experience.

“You have to look at cuisine as a flowing river of flavor with different tributaries coming in,” Joachim says. “Over the course of history, that river is always changing.”

In his book, the most “authentic” taco recipe is one with potatoes, poblanos and chorizo on a corn tortilla, but Joachim also shares an unexpected mash-up of cuisines: a fiery Kung Pao chicken taco seasoned with sambal, an Indonesian chile paste.

The book also features a recipe for Joachim’s spin on what has become a Los Angeles classic: the bulgogi Korean taco. Traditional bulgogi is beef that has been marinated and grilled and is often wrapped in large lettuce leaves. Serve it in a tortilla instead, and you have one of the hottest food truck trends of the past decade.

That taco is an excellent example of just how simple fusion can be.

To explain, Joachim breaks a taco into its core building blocks: a tortilla, meat (or other protein), something crunchy and something tangy. Change just one of those elements to incorporate an unexpected flavor or texture — kimchi instead of lettuce, raita or chutney instead of salsa, smoked pork instead of ground beef — and you’re on your way to fusion taco nirvana.

These are building blocks that cooks can play around with, but the key is not overdoing it because swapping out too many familiar elements takes away from the “taco-ness” of the taco, Joachim says.

So, where is the line between a taco and a wrap? It gets more blurry by the week, Joachim says.

At a youth sporting event recently, he said he came across a “walking taco,” a small bag of tortilla chips topped with chili, a spin on the Frito-pie-in-a-bag that Texans know well.

“That’s not even a wrapped food but they call it a taco,” he says.

Follow @MiamiHeraldFood on Twitter.

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