When Chef Roy Choi revolutionized the marriage of Korean and Mexican fusion, many fellow Korean American chefs were soon to follow in his footsteps. Just look at the rise in the popularity in the recent years of the Roy Choi wannabes putting their take into the spin of things.
As a fellow L.A. native, Mexican food has been embedded into the culinary repertoire of what I grew up eating. We Angelenos are serious about Mexican food. And Korean tacos are nothing new to us (Korean American Angelenos). Many of us grew up stuffing our tortillas with bulgogi, kimchi, and the likes far before Roy Choi turned the concept into an empire. I remember when I was growing up, we always had tortillas in our pantry. Tortillas and sandwich bread slices were like our rice alternatives. Have marinated meat left over? Throw them together in some tortillas along with some kimchi and whatever else was available that tasted good with it. Putting them together just made sense.
In the work kitchen, tacos are one of the overly consumed items that we live off of. Tortillas are cheap and versatile, making it a practical item for busy restaurant staff on the go….you know, the ones that are either too hungry or too busy feeding others that they hardly have the time to maintain food sustenance. As much as I love tortillas, after living off of them days at a time, there are times when I just naturally get sick at the mere sight of them.
Once I’ve gone through a reasonable tortilla detox period, I am ready for them tacos, tostadas, tortilla chips, and more all over again. Heck, it’s not like I have too many options readily available at all times, especially when I am so unbelievably-out-of-my-mind crazed with hunger that I would eat almost anything in front of me.
The fellow that used to make me lunch every day had recently left us. No one probably felt his absence more than I did. Without someone to prepare my meals on queue at the end of an exhausting, behgorage-inducing lunch service, I was likely to fall into that unhappy zone.
I jokingly made a cooking schedule for the kitchen team to go around taking turns cooking for me to make up for the estranged cook’s absence. Here is an example of one…. this is more of a recent one. The one I made the previous week listed Korean tacos on the schedule. lol
While in a rational, nonhungry state, I was texting Efren, my Tuesday guy, suggestions what to make for me that day. You might recognize Efren’s face from a previous post. If not, here he is again… This is Efren…
For random reasons, Korean tacos came to mind. I was kind of joking and curious what he’d say.
Me: Make me Korean tacos.
Efren: Korean tacos? I am no Kogi chef.
Although it started out as a joke, the idea percolated and I was actually curious to taste his rendition of Korean tacos. I told him that I’d bring in samgyupsal (pork belly) and gochujang (hot pepper paste), while everything else would be used with what we already had for him to work his magic in putting a Mexican flair in Korean tacos. Along with Korean tacos, I suggested a twist on a staple of Korean cuisine, -kimchi! I requested Mexican kimchi!
Korean American Angeleno chefs paving way to the Korean-Mexican food revolution is nothing new (Roy Choi and the founders of Vatos just to name a couple of the big timers). …has been overly done and tried. But a Mexican-born chef doing the Korean-Mexican fusion thing? It had me intrigued to explore how the tastes would differ.
I was really curious to find out how a Korean-Mexican fusioned dish made by a Mexican born chef would differ compared to the works of a chef bred on Korean food. An advantage these L.A. native Korean American chefs doing Korean-Mexican fusion is that Mexican food has been a big part of merely being an Angeleno.
Efren has never tried kimchi or any other Korean dishes. So he had no idea what kimchi was supposed to taste like. My asking for a Mexican kimchi was going to be a fun task to tackle.
Efren: What do I have to do to make it into a Mexican kimchi?
Me: IDK. Use Mexican peppers when fermenting?
Efren: Maybe add some habaneros.
Me: I don’t know for Mexican kimchi, but the Korean one is fermented for at least a few days.
Efren: That Korean kimchi sounds like Salvadorean curtido.
The Mexican kimchi challenge sounded like a promising plan. He’d have the kimchi start fermenting over the weekend and ready to eat/use by Tuesday with the Korean tacos.
To conquer Mexican kimchi, Efren diligently researched traditional kimchi recipes and then started to mentally recreate it with Mexican flavors. I asked him what was going to make the kimchi authentically Mexican.
Efren: A Mexican is making it. lol
Me: Lol I knew you would say that. But what other ingredients are you going to be adding?
Efren: I’m also going to add cilantro, lime, Serranos, Mexican radishes, cumin, etc.
On Saturday night of that week, he asked me to taste. I have been taste tasting the beginnings of kimchi since I was a kid. It was all part of the kimchi making process that I watched my grandma execute time and time again, as she assumed the position of the “kimchi squat”.
When I tasted Efren’s Mexican kimchi, I was surprised by the uncanny similarity of the flavor profile of it in comparison to the traditional one. The spicy, pre-fermented pungency had the familiar taste of traditional kimchi, but with a twist.
I was off the next day when Efren texted me more pictures.
Me: Does it taste different today?
Efren: Way different.
Me: In a good way?
Efren: You need to try it. Yes, in a good way.
The anticipation grew…..
Come Tuesday morning, I was ready to chow down on them Korean tacos and Mexican kimchi. I brought my contribution for this epic experiment.
Along with a pack of samgyupsal (sliced pork belly), I brought a container of gochujang…a staple ingredient in many Korean dishes.
In the making….
I expected to contribute with the taco part (or at least watch how he’d prepare it) after I had powered through the lunch rush. But to my surprise, Efren already had the tacos ready and waiting for me as the rush started to die down.
As usual, I was starving, so yay~
The pork belly certainly had a different taste than when I cook it with gochujang. Efren added his special Cajun spice (which includes garlic, an ingredient that most Korean recipes cannot do without) to it. Talk about fusioning it up! When I am cooking pork belly slices with gochujang at home, I am usually adding in things like kiwi (if I am marinating), soy sauce, sugar, of course garlic, ginger, sesame oil, gochugaru, and such…you know, the traditional way Koreans do.
The marriage of the two cultures blended in the dish was novel, intriguing, and flavorful.
Mexican kimchi is something I can get on board with. Maybe I’ll ask Efren to make me a jar lol. I have plenty of kimchi jars at home, Efren. Maybe I’ll bring some for you to lol.
I know a lot of Mexicans that can’t live without kimchi either after getting introduced to the spicy/pungent/addicting flavors of it. When I was growing up, we had a short-term nanny (from Mexico) stay with us to take care my brother. She’d cook up her own Mexican dishes and with whatever she was having, I had never seen her eat anything without kimchi after being introduced to it at our home. She’d even munch on kimchi by itself, just popping them like candy. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone eat kimchi so deliciously before. But anyway, my parents fired her after a few months because of her incompetency (a whole other story). But after her, we found a wonderful lady that ended up staying with us for several years, so it worked out in the end. Kimchi just goes well with many Mexican dishes. I speak from experience.
After mastering his own rendition of fusioned kimchi, Efren expressed his curiosity to try the real thing. I have a feeling he’d love it, given he tries a batch that has been properly made. If his first time experience is with a nasty batch, I can just imagine being left with a bad taste and impression of kimchi.
Lately, Efren took interest in further playing around with fusioning dishes with Korean flavors. And I get to taste test. For someone that has never actually tried any real Korean dishes, the outcome of his creations are impressive.
With nearly a few decades of kitchen experience under his belt, Efren’s cultivated passion can be tasted in his creations.
Efren: That’s my motto. Sometimes I worry if what I am doing is right and how much longer I will have the energy for it. Sometimes I work 16 hours straight and my days bleed into each other. But feeding people and getting paid for it is one of the greatest joys in life. What I love the most is when I cook something and seeing the reactions of people after they taste my food. I feel proud of my cooking.
That brings me back to a topic I had covered in a previous post. The outcome of almost anything will often show if love/passion was put into it or was half-assed.
Efren first entered the professional kitchen in 1990. He started out as a dishwasher, but couldn’t leave the position soon enough because he couldn’t stand “cleaning restrooms” that came with the job entailments. As a dishwasher, he’d watch the guys on the line, admiring from afar. He’d ask questions. His interest was soon noticed by management. And one day, when a prep cook quit, a position opened up and Efren jumped on it. The rest is history.