It's been a while guys, I apologize for the extended absence things have been a little crazy. To a certain degree we expect life to give us lemons so we kind of plan on making lemonade at the end of the day, but it doesn't always work out like that. Sometimes life gives you an onion. What am I supposed to do with an onion? A lot more possibilities, but a little bit trickery to figure out. Life recently gave me an onion, so I made tacos with it. Actually, I did even better and went to Mexico City and had master taqueros make tacos with it.
But that's enough kitchen metaphors. Let's talk about tacos. If the only taco options you have ever been given were "soft or crunchy?" please allow me the pleasure of showing you something magical. Real tacos. Real tacos are not just for Tuesdays, they are for any and all days; they are for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and anything inbetween. And with the limitless varieties of tacos, they are the perfect culinary starting point on your latin journey. Since tacos are kind of a big deal, I'm splitting this up into two posts. Post one (this one) will give you some background on a Mexico City classic: Tacos al Pastor. Post two (next week) will show you how to make them. Listo?
WHAT AM I EATING
Tacos al pastor are one of my all time favorite street foods and consist of seasoned pork topped with pineapple, onion, cilantro and lime. The fresh cilantro, sweet pineapple and crisp, acidic lime are incredibly refreshing and pair perfectly with the savory pork. The pork is traditionally cooked on a vertical spit called a trompo (Spanish for "spinning top") with a pineapple skewered on top, letting the juices drip down onto the slow cooking meat as it spins round and round in a tantalizing taco dance.
The very first time I had tacos al pastor was (of all places) at a fútbol tournament in Jackson, Mississippi. The tacos were served out of a food truck (or more accurately a truck that was serving food) parked alongside one of the fields. They had a three foot portable speaker connected to cell phone blaring bachata and reggetón with the bass on blast and a small chalk board with a menu full of tacos I had never heard of before. I barely spoke Spanish at the time and was new to the taco scene so I asked the taquero what he recommended. "Tacos al pastor, wero" he said. "Dame tres," I responded. I had no idea what I was eating, but I was hooked after the first bite.
WHAT'S IN A NAME
The name is kind of curious, it translates literally as "tacos of the pasture" or "pasture style tacos", which is odd because they are pork tacos and pigs aren't pasture animals. Some believe that the name is tied to the the origin of these tacos, way on the other side of the world in the Middle East.
Hold up. Middle East? I thought we were talking about classic Mexican tacos! Let me explain. So in the Middle East and Europe you will find something called Döner Kebap. Kebap is strikingly similar to tacos al pastor in that it consists of thinly sliced meat cooked on a spinning vertical spit served as a street food. Kebap is almost always lamb or chicken but beef kebap is not unheard of. Pork, however, is not too common for obvious reasons. Kebap is topped with a number of things such as sliced cabbage with carrots, cucumbers, tomatoes, cheese, etc. and then slathered in white and red salsas, some spicy, some not. It was a favorite of mine while in Spain because it's delicious, fast, cheap and available on most street corners. Ojo, whenever I try to explain Kebap to someone the usual response is "Oh, so it's like a gyro." No. They look similar, but the flavor profiles and cooking methods are worlds apart. Kebap is not a gyro, just like you are not your cousin Jennifer.
HOW IT GOT TO MEXICO
The generally accepted story is that Middle Eastern migrants to Mexico took the Kebap tradition with them, as it was blended into the Mexican culture the lamb meat was substituted for the more affordable and easily accessible pork meat and tacos arabes were born. Tacos arabes are similar to tacos al pastor in the use of pork cooked on a trompo but instead of a traditional corn or flour tortilla a type of thin peta bread is used, the meat is also seasoned differently and has a distinct taste. Tacos arabes then eventually developed into what we now know as tacos al pastor.
HOY EN DIA
Depending on where you go, tacos al pastor will vary quite a bit. Sometimes the pineapple is just on top of the trompo and not diced in with the meat. Sometimes the pineapple is on the table with the salsas and guacamoles as an option. Sometimes it's cooked in with the meat on a grill and not even on a trompo. There is no one way to make them. They are a reflection of Mexico City: ever changing, ever growing, ever developing. Mexican writer Juan Villoro said it best
"El Distrito Federal y la zona conurbada se han transformado a tal ritmo que el espacio no puede ser visto como una categoría fija. Estamos ante una metrópoli nómada que migra hacia sí misma.
The Federal District (Mexico City) and conurbation have transformed at such a rapid speed that the area cannot fit into any fixed category. We are before a nomadic metropolis that is migrating towards itself."
Tacos al pastor are kind of like that. They are recognizable, undeniably Mexico City, and ever evolving. Next post I'll show you how to make your own.