November 05, 2009

Making Korean Tacos in Indonesia, All From Scratch

korean taco

In the food truck zeitgeist of 2009, if you mention the words "Korean taco", you generally won't be met with a set of curious eyes. I was surprised to see Chef Roy Choi, an acquaintance of mine, featured in this week's Time Magazine about the future prospects of the state of California. I'm not quite sure if Kogi BBQ and Chef Roy really encompasses the exuberance and willing-to-fail attitude that the article claims, but you still have to credit the man for following through with a dream.

To be honest, my friends and I have been making Korean tacos for years, many years before Chef Roy and the gang fired the Kogi BBQ truck's engine, but then again, ours were crude, makeshift creations while Kogi BBQ's are refined, well-thought, and excellently flavored. I prefer dining on these tacos and other Korean-Mexican fusions such as kimchi quesadillas and burritos at the Alibi Room, an obnoxious and overly-Asian/Westside bar in a blank stretch of Culver City. The bar affords one a decent seat, a draught of beer, and respite from a potential 2-hour wait at a roaming Kogi Trucks.

Javier and I happened to be the ethnic ingredients, in a sense, to make the ideal Korean taco. He, "The Mexican Food Prodigy" and heir-apparent to Sir Jonathan Gold's punk rock-inflected, ghetto-fab food writing. Me, well I'm just the dude that loves Korean food and doesn't mind tinkering with a few things to make it more interesting.

While in Surabaya, Mrs. Chandra, the extraordinary Indonesian cook, asked the two of us to make the family the celebrated Korean tacos.

Among the problems with making Korean tacos in Indonesia, we didn't have pre-marinated Korean meat, something one can easily find at their neighborhood Korean market. (Midwestern readers are probably scratching their heads). There's also the problem of tortillas, that underappreciated, easily acquired staple of Mexican cuisine. Both of these would have to made from scratch, using only ingredients available in this part of the Island of Java.

Fiona's mother was kind enough to provide us with the nuts and bolts. First I made the marinade for the galbi, traditionally short-rib meat but in this case a boneless cut that more resembled the meat in bulgogi. Thinly sliced, fairly low in fat or gristle, it made for a very grillable collection of meat. This cut of beef is certainly not inexpensive, so perhaps in your case you should purchase a cheaper cut like skirt, hangar, or flank steak. We marinated the meat for a healthy 5-6 hours though it's best to be kept in the fridge over night. In keeping with the Indonesian palate's proclivity toward sweeter foods (even in main dishes), I bumped up the sugar and honey content a bit.

Meanwhile, Javier worked tirelessly with Mrs. Chandra and two other housemaids to produce the tortillas. In my opinion, the best tortillas for tacos are of the corn variety, a bit grainy, nicely textured to successfully cradle the spoonfuls of meat, as well as any requisite sauces and toppings. Unfortunately, despite Indonesia's available supply of fresh corn, corn flour is a rare gem. Aside from a highly effective corn mill (not a common item in Indonesian or American kitchens), our only option was to pulverize corn meal (the larger, mite-sized chunks you'd use for polenta or grits) using a blade grinder. After sifting, we were able to make about 2 cups of corn flour, which is both hideously inadequate and functionally difficult for the quota of tacos we were to make. Javier opted to combine this corn flour with a bit of standard all-purpose wheat flour to make not only a thicker, more resilient tortilla, but also one whose quantity multiplied with the paucity of our corn flour.

Finally, Javier put together a makeshift chile salsa using fiery red Indonesia chile peppers. These need to be de-veined and seeded to prevent hyperventilation and possible coma-inducing spice attack. Combine the chiles with some quickly roasted (or in our case, toasted over hot pan) tomatoes, and you've got yourself a fine sauce for Korean tacos. Maybe Javier and I could start our own enterprise and franchise these puppies in every mall in Indonesia. Or not. This is tedious work and it's probably best left to someone who really has the desire to capitalize on it. Blessings to all that do attempt to do so.

Marinated Bulgogi

Serves 4 or makes 6-8 tacos. Recipe can be doubled or tripled easily.

2 pounds thinly sliced short rib meat

1/2 cup soy sauce
1/4 cup honey
1/2 cup diced onions or Asian pear

2 tablespoons white sugar
2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger
2 cloves minced garlic
2 tablespoons sesame oil
2 tablespoons mirin or rice wine vinegar (Asian rice wine vinegar)
1/2 teaspoon of salt and pepper
1 tablespoon of toasted sesame seeds (optional)
1 cup

1. Combine first three ingredients and blend until pureed, or if you don't have a food processor, mash or finely mince onions or Asian pear, and combine all marinade ingredients. Dilute the marinade with up to 1/2 cup of water, but make sure the flavor is still strong. Pour the marinade over the meat and mix together with your hands.

2. Let sit covered in a refrigerator for up to 12 hours, but at least 6 hours. Before cooking, drain off extra marinade. Cook over a cast iron skillet or coal fire (for best flavor).

Corn (and Wheat in times of Corn-Flour Famine) Tortillas (adapted from Rick Bayless' Authentic Mexican)

Makes 10 thick tortillas

1 Cups Corn Flour or Masa Harina
3/4 Cup All-Purpose Flour
2 Tablespoons of hot water

1. Add water to flours and knead until smooth. Let rest for 30 minutes.

2. Dust countertop or cutting board with flour and press out small balls of dough into 5 inch diameter tortillas. If the tortillas are not perfectly circular, it adds to the rustic flavor. Though tortillas you're used to are thin, something a bit thicker, make 1/8 inch thick could work.

3. Heat a cast iron griddle under medium heat and warm up tortillas until slightly browned and bubbly. The wheat element of the tortillas should give them some more body and heft while the corn flour element keeps the texture ideal.

Indonesian Chili Pepper Salsa

1 pound red chili peppers, de-seeded.
2 small tomatoes
salt and pepper to taste

1. Lightly grill chili peppers over a skillet over high heat. Remove when the skin starts to char. Remove and set aside.

2. Grill tomatoes over skillet until skins char. Throw both chilis and tomatoes into a blender and puree until smooth, adding up to 1/2 cup water to thin out it out. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add back seeds for additional heat. Salsa should be on the thicker side.

korean taco salad

Korean lettuce salad

This salad is typical of what one might expect to go along with your Korean BBQ at a restaurant.

Serves 4, or more than enough for 8 tacos.

1 large head (or two smaller heads) green leaf lettuce, finely chopped.
1/2 cabbage head, shredded

2 tablespoons spicy Korean chili paste
1 tablespoon sesame oil
2 tablespoons mirin or Korean rice wine
1 teaspoon toasted sesame seeds
1/2 teaspoon red Korean chili flakes

1. Stir together dressing elements and dress over lettuce, mixing with hands.

korean taco v2


Joshua Lurie said...

It's funny to think of combining people to form fusion, but in this case, it makes sense. This is a resourceful story. When do you roll out the food truck?

burumun said...

My mom said she has perfected the marinade and sauce and it's even better now ;)

Josh: Hopefully next year. It won't be a truck though!

Aaron said...

That's crazy! I didn't know you made tortillas from scratch too. I think that gives you one up on Kogi.

Al said...

Acquaintance? Of Chef Roy?

::scratches head::

What does that even mean?

streetgourmetla said...

Always wondered if the tortillas could be made with rice. I never thought corn matching with Korean BBQ. Any chance for an original rice tortilla from the kitchen of Matt Kang?