Inspiration and ingredients from Asia, the Middle East, Mexico and possibly even Bakersfield come together in tacos stuffed with grilled chicken marinated in tahini, gin, lemon juice, soy sauce, cumin, garlic and ginger. Recipe below.
One of the benefits (and pitfalls) of writing about food is that everything you put in your mouth is also food for thought. Marion and I don’t go all foodie obsessive and kidnap restaurant conversation with a play-by-play (or bite-by-bite) analysis. But we do store all sorts of information away—new flavor combinations, interesting techniques or ingredients—ever ready to call them up and mash them together into something new.
Which is precisely how these tacos came about. First, tacos are definitely enjoying a moment—I wrote about this delicious phenomenon for the USA Character Blog. Among the more interesting iterations are the Korean tacos at Chicago’s tiny, bustling Del Seoul. Since the first bite, we’ve not gotten these tacos out of our heads.
Last Saturday, lunchtime found us enjoying very different tacos at Big Star, an homage to Bakersfield honky-tonks of the late ’30s and ’40s in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Nestled in small, warm tortillas were messy delights like spit roasted pork shoulder with grilled pineapple and onions or crispy braised pork belly with tomato guajillo sauce and queso fresco.
But man cannot live by tacos alone. The Saturday night before that we’d been at Lure, a brand new Izakaya (a casual Japanese pub) featuring inventive small plates. Everything was wonderful, but the aha! moment was tender bits of sake-marinated fried chicken. We marinate foods in wine all the time, but booze opened up a whole new world to us.
The last bit of inspiration wasn’t a restaurant at all. Marion came across a recipe for chicken kebabs that included tahini; the tahini wasn’t even part of the marinade in this case, but suddenly we were swirling all these inspirations into a gin-soaked Mediterranean-Mex taco mash-up.
The marinade worked beautifully to flavor skinless, boneless chicken thighs for the tacos. You could also use it to flavor chicken pieces with skin and bones intact to be served with whatever sides come to mind.
Grilled Tahini-marinated Chicken Tacos
Makes 6 to 8 tacos
For the chicken:
1/4 cup tahini (see Kitchen Notes)
1/4 cup gin
the zest and juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more—see Kitchen Notes)
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-1/2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken thighs
freshly ground black pepper
For the tacos:
1 or 2 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
2 or 3 green onions, thinly sliced
1 large bunch cilantro, rinsed and roughly chopped, thick stems discarded
6-inch (or smaller) flour tortillas (see Kitchen Notes)
Marinate the chicken. Mix tahini, gin, lemon zest and juice, soy sauce, cumin, salt, cayenne pepper, ginger and garlic in a medium bowl. Cut chicken thighs in half (this will expose more surface to the marinade and allow the meat to cook more quickly) and place in a large plastic zipper storage bag. Pour in the marinade, seal the bag and turn to coat chicken evenly. Marinate refrigerated at least 4 hours and preferably overnight.
Grill the chicken. About half an hour before you’re ready to grill, remove chicken from the marinade, shaking off excess and arrange in a single layer on a platter. Discard marinade. Season on both sides with black pepper and set aside, allowing chicken to come to room temperature. Prepare your grill for indirect grilling (for my charcoal grill, I placed hot coals on one side of the grill). Lightly oil the grill rack and arrange chicken pieces on the side of the grill away from the direct heat of the coals.
Cover the grill and cook for about 10 to 15 minutes, turning once. Move chicken to directly above the coals and cook for another 2 minutes or so per side or until an instant read thermometer reads 165ºF when inserted into the thickest part of the chicken. Transfer to a platter and tent with foil while you prepare tortillas.
Assemble tacos. First, slice the chicken into bite-sized chunks. Next, warm the tortillas. There are any number of ways to do this, including in the microwave, layered with damp paper towels and, more dramatically, laying them on gas stove burner racks directly over the open flame and carefully flipping them by hand. I use the more boring method of heating a couple of dry nonstick skillets over medium flame and heating the tortillas in skillets, flipping them occasionally for less than a minute.
You can assemble tacos for your guests or let them do their own. Put some cilantro down the middle of each tortilla as a base. Add some chicken next, then top with tomato and green onion. Two generously dressed tacos make a good, filling meal, especially if you serve a small salad and perhaps some refried beans on the side.
Tahini. This paste or sauce made of sesame seeds is usually associated with the Middle East and is a key ingredient in hummus. But it’s also found in some African, Chinese, Korean and Japanese dishes (making it perfect for this global mutt of a recipe). Available in specialty shops, you can also often find tahini in many supermarkets.
Turn up the heat. I used 1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper in this dish. I think I might up it to 3/4 teaspoon next time—most of the marinade stays behind, so the recipe as prepared had very little heat.
Single or double tortillas? If you can find nice thin flour tortillas, go with those and use two per taco. The ones I found this time were thick and plenty sturdy to use singly, but also a little on the chewy side.