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Key Ingredient: Thai Dang of Embeya puts an Asian spin on maguey leaves

You can't eat this part of the agave plant, but they do impart "a different dimension."

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The Chef: Thai Dang (Embeya)
The Challenger: Andres Padilla (Topolobampo)
The Ingredient: Maguey leaf

The maguey plant, also known as agave, is a succulent that resembles aloe vera, though in fact the species aren't closely related. It's used to make tequila, mezcal, and pulque, and fibers from the leaves can be woven into rope and cloth. Agave leaves aren't edible, but for traditional Mexican barbacoa (barbecue), meat is wrapped in the leaves and then slow-cooked over coals in a pit in the ground, infusing the meat with their flavor.

Thai Dang (Embeya), challenged with maguey leaves by Andres Padilla of Topolobampo, had trouble describing their flavor. "I tried to taste it—they were right. It's not that great in your mouth," he said. "It's very fibrous, dense." Grilling it added a nice aroma and flavor, though, Dang said. "I found it very umami-like in smell. A very beefy, meaty kind of smell. I've never smelled something like that before."

Dang decided that the dish he made couldn't be entirely Mexican or Vietnamese. "I wanted to incorporate [the ingredient] in a way that didn't seem fusionlike," he said. "The maguey leaf was such a unique ingredient that it made you think outside the box. It made you want to ask questions, and that's why I love cooking—when you submerge yourself in the ingredient, you submerge yourself in techniques."

He considered making fish, but realized that the agave leaf would overpower its delicacy. In the end, he made a variation on the Vietnamese dish bo tai chanh—beef carpaccio marinated in lime juice with chiles. "I grew up eating this," he said. "In Vietnam, there's a lot of food developed and created for the men to sit around and drink beer and eat it. Salty, spicy, sour."

For Dang's modified version, he used rib-eye cap, briefly grilling it to get a little char on the outside while leaving it very rare inside, then submerged the hot meat in oil with garlic, chiles, shallots, peppercorns, and grilled agave leaves and let it marinate overnight.

After removing the beef from the marinade, Dang sliced it thin and pounded it flat. He drizzled it with "gangsta dressing," what his cooks have labeled the dressing he uses for almost everything at Embeya: lime juice, fish sauce, chiles, lemongrass, palm sugar, raw and fried shallots, and fried garlic. For crunch, he dipped maitake mushrooms in tempura batter and fried them; pickled peppers added acidity and sweetness. On top, Dang grated egg yolk that had been salt-cured with chiles and sugar, as well as dehydrated black garlic. A little cilantro finished the dish.

Eating it, Dang said, "You get that crunch—I love maitake being fried like that. You get the tenderness from the beef, the acidity from the dressing, and the spice and the lemongrass, you taste all those components, and you get the very refreshing notes of the peppers and the cilantro. And then there's this aftertaste of the egg yolk." And the taste of the maguey leaf. "That's the flavor that you're wondering what it is. That's the maguey leaf," he said. "It just adds a different dimension that's so great."

Who's next:

Ryan McCaskey of Acadia, working with pandan leaf—another inedible leaf used to add flavor to dishes. It's often used in southeast Asian cooking, Dang said. "It's very floral. It's weird. I don't know how to describe it."

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