Most of the tofu and kimchi tacos on the food scene are vegetarian but I wanted to turn a classic Korean dish --dubu kimchi (warm tofu with a stir-fry of kimchi and pork belly) -- into a taco filling. The triad of ingredients is wonderful so why not see what it’s like in a corn tortilla?
I started thinking about the taco filling idea as I was developing the dubu kimchi recipe for the tofu cookbook. I could have squeezed the tofu taco concept into the book as a recipe “Variation,” but there was an inherent brilliance in the original dish (see page 145 in Asian Tofu). I didn’t want to distract from it by cluttering the page with recipe TMI (too much information).
So I saved the idea for the right online moment. In tribute to the 20th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots and Cinco de Mayo, I tackled my Mexi-Korean taco idea this week. Combining Mexican and Asian flavors has been going on for a long time. Mexi-Asian didn’t start with Roy Choi’s Kogi tacos and David Chang’s Momofuku’s ssam wraps in flour tortillas.
My friend Victor Fong’s father was making lop chong and chorizo in Tijuana in the early part the 20th century. Fast forward, I had my first kimchi burrito in 1993 or ’94, in Los Angeles while I was working at the University of Southern California. A couple of the students loved to make kimchi burrito runs. They’d come back with humungous ones that we’d cut up and share.
In post-1992 riot Los Angeles, that culinary combination was a no brainer. Cuisines can and do get along. A few months ago, I learned that la soya is popular in the Mexican community, per this awesome article on East Los Angeles as a health food Mecca.
- Kimchi is relatively lean. Yeah, it’s juicy and wet with pickling liquid that easily stain a napkin, but it’s not rich. It needs fat to soften its edges, which is where the raw (uncured) pork belly comes in for dubu kimchi. For this taco recipe, I used bacon as a nod to La Super Rica Taqueria in Santa Barbara, a favorite of Julia Child’s. The stand loves to use bacon.
- Don’t fry the bacon to a crisp for this taco. It needs to retain a little softness, lest it turns into hard bits that just don’t play well with the kimchi and tofu. I used the bacon fat to cook the rest of the dish.
- Pan-fry the tofu for character and sturdiness. To stand up to cured bacon and endure the rigors of stir-frying, I pan-fried the tofu. That firmed it up and gave it an extra layer of flavor. Deep-frying the tofu would have dried it out and made it a unpleasantly chewy as there’s not much liquid in the stir-fry. I suppose spongy fried tofu puffs of puffy slices of fried tofu (abura age) would work, though; they’re sold at Asian markets. Go for it!
- Garnish with richness. The tofu, kimchi, and bacon mixture turned out gutsy and earthy. It need to be mellowed out, to rest on a soft pillow, sort to speak. My solution was to hit the taco with a Roy Choi-esque drizzle of kimchi sour cream and slices of avocado.
That’s how I got to the tofu taco recipe below. Try it out and play with it. For example, it would be great as an app on tiny street stall-size tortillas (think the size of pot sticker skins).
¡Que viva la soya! Happy Cinco de Mayo.
Tofu, Kimchi and Bacon Tacos
Servings: Makes 8 tacos, to serve 3 or 4
- 8 ounces firm or extra-firm tofu
- 8 ounces napa cabbage kimchi, drained and cut into 1/2-inch-wide strips (about 1 packed cup)
- About 1/2 teaspoon sugar
- About 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika o ground chipotle chile, and/or 1 1/2 teaspoons Korean red pepper powder (gochu garu)
- 4 to 5 ounces bacon, cut crosswise into 1/3-inch-wide strips
- 1/2 small yellow onion, sliced
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped (crush a smidgen for the kimchi sour cream below)
- 1 extra large jalapeño chile, halved lengthwise and cut into 1/8-inch-thick rings
- 1 to 2 tablespoons kimchi pickling liquid (save from draining kimchi)
- 1/2 teaspoon sesame oil, optional
- 8 corn tortillas
- 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro
- 1 small ripe avocado, seeded and cut into wedges
- 1 batch of Kimchi Sour Cream
- 1 or 2 limes, cut into wedges
- Cut the tofu into thin little matchbooks, each one about 1/3 inch thick, 3/4 inch wide and the length of the first two joints of your index finger. Set on several layers of paper towel or a non-terry dishcloth to drain for about 15 minutes.
- Season the kimchi with the sugar and paprika or chile powder. Aim to balance and brighten the flavor, as well as inject a bit of heat. You can combine them all, if they’re available. Set aside.
- In a 10-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, cook the bacon. Scatter it in, spreading the pieces out flat. After 1 minute, when some of the fat has rendered, start stir-frying. When the bacon is gently sizzling all over and has browned a bit (but not crisp), transfer to a plate, leaving the fat behind.
- Remove all but 2 tablespoons of the fat (reserve any extra or add some oil if you need to). Reheat the skillet over medium-high heat. Blot the tofu one last time, then add the pieces to the skillet. Pan-fry them for 3 to 4 minutes, turning midway, until golden. They won’t be totally crisp but have some character. Add to the plate with the bacon.
- Add 1 or 2 tablespoons of reserved bacon fat (or oil) to the skillet, then cook the onion until soft and a little brown, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and jalapeno chile, and cook until no longer raw smelling.
- Add the kimchi and cook to warm through. Return the tofu and bacon to the pan and combine and heat through. Splash in the kimchi pickling liquid to flavor and moisten. Cook for a final minute, stirring, until the tofu has turned orange-red. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust the seasonings with extra sugar or salt. Drizzle with sesame oil, if using. Set aside or cover with an inverted bowl, if you want to keep warm. The mixture can easily be reheated until hot or eaten warm.
- Reheat the tortillas in a skillet, microwave oven, or atop a gas burner. To serve, distribute the tofu mixture among the tortillas. Add the avocado, drizzle on some of the kimchi sour cream and top with a sprinkle of cilantro. Squeeze on some lime juice for a tart note. (Or, serve the tofu mixture, tortillas and garnishes in separate containers and have guests help themselves.)
More Mexi-Asian tacos to try:
- Dashi Carnitas Taco Recipe (salty, fatty and filled with umami)
- Crisp Duck Taco Recipe (use pot sticker skins to make an Asian taco)