This is a tale of two tacos, one from the north and one from the south. In matters of Mexican food, these compass points would normally indicate the United States and Mexico. But not in this case. North refers to Bangkok and south to Singapore, making these exotic tacos indeed.
The "northern" tacos have a tenuous link to the United States because they were inspired by a Californian, author John Steinbeck. They are identified on the menu of the Verandah coffee shop at the Oriental hotel in Bangkok as Steinbeck's favorite dish.
The Oriental is so author-conscious that it has an author's wing, an author's lounge and suites named for such literary notables as Somerset Maugham, Joseph Conrad and Noel Coward. Therefore, it is not surprising to encounter in its restaurant a dish dedicated to a novelist.
Steinbeck's taste in Mexican food apparently leaned toward chili con carne, because that is what fills the tacos. Although Thailand can supply sizzling hot chiles, the meat mixture is rather gently seasoned with sweet peppers and a modest dash of chili powder.
The taco garnishes reflect the sort of innovation that occurs when Mexican food is prepared far from the source. Instead of the shreds of yellow cheese that go into the average American taco, the Steinbeck tacos are topped with an herb-flavored blend of yogurt and cottage cheese. And instead of guacamole, there is diced-avocado salad flavored with Sherry vinegar dressing. It's all rather refined, as upper-level cooking in Thailand tends to be.
The Singaporean tacos were introduced to the newly opened Oriental hotel in that city by its executive chef, Martin Maese. Maese was born in England and has cooked his way around the world. During a stint as banquet chef at the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles, he was introduced to Mexican food. "I loved it," he said in an interview in Singapore.
Maese chose chicken as the taco filling because it is acceptable both to Chinese, who dominate the population in Singapore, and to Muslims, who also are prominent in the city. The ingredients come from a variety of sources: chili powder from New York, jalapenos from Santa Barbara and cocktail-size taco shells from New Zealand, where Maese maintains a home.
In a departure from traditional Mexican procedure, Maese deglazes the pan in which the chicken is sauteed with white wine and garnishes the taco plate with alfalfa sprouts. The recipe sheet used in the hotel indicates the novelty of this sort of food in Singapore. Referring to Maese's jalapeno salsa, it instructs: "Serve sauce separate, but inform guest to eat with the taco."
JOHN STEINBECK'S FAVORITE BEEF TACOS
3 taco shells
1 scant cup Chili Con Carne
1/4 cup Yogurt-Cottage Cheese Filling
2 tablespoons whole kernel corn
1 fresh red chile, carved into flower
2 basil sprigs
2 cilantro sprigs
Fill taco shells with Chili Con Carne. Top with some of Yogurt-Cottage Cheese Filling, then with some of Avocado Salad. Garnish with corn. Arrange tacos on serving plate and garnish with chile flower, basil and cilantro sprigs. Makes 1 serving.
Chili Con Carne
2 tablespoons oil
5 1/2 ounces lean beef, diced
1/4 onion, sliced
1/4 teaspoon minced garlic
1/4 green pepper, sliced
1/4 sweet red pepper, sliced
1/4 sweet yellow pepper, sliced
2 tablespoons cooked or canned red kidney beans
1/2 teaspoon mild chili powder
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, crumbled
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Heat oil in skillet. Add beef, onion and garlic and cook until meat is browned. Add peppers and cook until tender. Add beans and heat. Stir in chili powder, oregano, salt and pepper. Heat thoroughly. Makes about 2 cups.
Yogurt-Cottage Cheese Filling
2 tablespoons yogurt
1/4 cup dry cottage cheese
1/4 sweet red pepper, chopped
1/4 green pepper, chopped
1/4 sweet yellow pepper, chopped
1/2 teaspoon chopped parsley
1/2 teaspoon chopped mint
1/2 teaspoon chopped oregano
Combine yogurt and cottage cheese. Stir in peppers, parsley, mint and oregano. Season with dash each of salt, pepper and chili powder. Makes about 3/4 cup.
1/4 avocado, cubed
1/4 onion, sliced
2 shallots, sliced
10 parsley leaves
10 cilantro leaves
2 small fresh red chiles, seeded, chopped
4 pitted green olives, quartered
1 large tomato, peeled and diced
3 tablespoons Sherry Vinegar Dressing
Combine avocado, onion, shallots, parsley, cilantro, chiles, olives and tomato. Toss gently with dressing. Makes about 2 cups.
Sherry Vinegar Dressing
1/4 cup oil
1 tablespoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon dry Sherry
1 teaspoon sugar
Combine oil, vinegar, Sherry, sugar and salt and pepper to taste in small jar. Cover and shake to blend. Makes 1/3 cup.
MARTIN MAESE'S CHICKEN TAQUITOS
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon finely chopped shallot
1/2 pound boned, skinless chicken, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons white wine
1 1/2 tablespoons mild chili powder
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons tomato paste
Oil for deep frying
6 appetizer size tortillas
1/3 cup shredded mozzarella or Cheddar cheese