Tacos Al Pastor

Tacos al pastor or in other words shepherd tacos, are a staple in Mexican cuisine. They are also a testament to the way that migration shapes different cuisines and cultures. tacos al pastor are embedded into the Mexican cuisine and now all around the world. They are found with many variations of ingredients however they all consist of pork, and a tortilla. My favorite variation includes, pineapple, cilantro, avocado, lime and adobo. Adobo”is the immersion of raw food in a stock composed variously of paprika, oregano, salt, garlic, and vinegar to preserve and enhance its flavor”. The way that different tacos al pastor are adobados, or marinated lead to different varieties of color, spice, and flavor. One popular style is Monterrey-style, which is more pink than red, and there is also an innovate new restaurant that uses a black colored adobo. I wanted to find an authentic adobo recipe for tacos al pastor marinade and I found one that incorporated the majority of the ingredients I found other recipes to contain. The adobo recipe and directions go as follwoing

Roast the tomato in a skillet or small comal over medium-high heat, turning constantly, until skin has roasted and begins to peel, about 10 minutes. Peel, cut in half and discard the seeds.
2. Meanwhile, boil enough water in a medium saucepan and add the guajillo and wide chiles. Let them boil until they have softened, about 5 minutes.

Place the boiled chiles in the blender jar. Add the chipotle chiles, garlic, onion, vinegar, orange juice, chopped pineapple, cloves, cumin, oregano and roasted tomato. Blend until you have a homogeneous sauce.
4. Place the meat in a glass bowl or zipper bag and add the sauce making sure to cover all the meat. Marinate inside the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or overnight.

The full recipe for these delicious tacos can be found at People in Español.

Tacos al Pastor con Piña y cebolla
Este video demuestra como se hace el trompo de carne usado en el taco al pastor.

Studying and looking back into foodways of Tacos al pastor, we see a deep seeded history of migration, colonization, and cultural merging. The fundamental ingredient in a Taco al Pastor is pork that is seasoned and then cooked on a gas flame on a vertical rotisserie that is known in Mexico as a trompo. This is the part of the recipe that merges two cultures together. This trompo is essentially shawarma however it is pork rather than lamb, and it is seasoned with spices that are cultural to Mexico.

The history of the Taco al Pastor can be traced back to the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman Empire was one of the strongest and longest lasting ruling dynasties in world history. “The islamic run superpower ruled large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa for more than 600 years.” At the height of their empire, modern day Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, amongst many others were under their ruling. 

What all these countries have in common, is the practice of roasting a tightly packed meat around “a vertical spit to form a solid mass” and once roasted the meat is “cut off the outside as it browns”. This practice can be most closely tied back to modern day Turkey as shawarma, however many other countries where the Ottoman exercised power have this dish. Palestinian anthropologist Ali Qleibo speaks about the interesting and borderless practice of shawarma. 

“Shawarma is very, very interesting, the origin of the word shawarma comes from the Turkish word çevirme, which means “turning.”” Qleibo explains the way that the vast Ottoman Empire left a mark on the world by all the different countries that eat this dish 

“Turks call it döner kebab; Greeks call it gyro; Iraqis call it kas…this shows you the all- pervasive influence of the Ottoman Empire, because all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire eat shawarma even though they call it by different names.” 

We can credit the Lebanese people for bringing shawarma into Mexico at the turn of the twentieth century. The Lebanese people in the early 1900s migrated all over the world, with a lot of them settling in Puebla Mexico. “About 36,000 people under Ottoman rule left for Mexico between the late 19th and early 20th century.” This migration was due largely to the “collapse of its silk industry after the Suez Canal’s opening in 1869”. The influence that Lebanese migrants had on the formation of Mexico is so monumental, that in the Mexican port city of Veracruz, “stands a huge statue dedicated to the Lebanese Immigrant.” One way that Lebanese people were able to hold on to their roots and integrate into the new culture they found themselves was food, and one of those foods is the now iconic Tacos al Pastor. 

This history of Lebanese immigration is something that was seen in Colombia as well. The Miami Herald estimates that there are “to be about 20,000 Muslims” in Colombia, “most from the Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese communities that came to the Americas seeking refuge from both World Wars and the Arab-Israeli conflict”. That is only including the muslim community, in Lebanon roughly 50% of the inhabitants are muslim, 44% Christian and 5% Druze. Prominent pop culture entertainer Shakira, is Colombian born, yet her father is Lebanese and she strives to showcase both her Colombian and Arabic shared history in her art.

Once in Puebla, the process of shawarma was modified to fit into the culture they resided in. Lamb was changed for pork due its easy availability in the country. And Mexican spices were added to this trompo, not just onions, spices such as Guajillo chile, garlic, cumin, clove, bay leaf, cinnamon, dried Mexican oregano, coriander, and black peppercorns were incorporated. This new Mexican styled shawarma was given the name trompo. Trompo in Spanish means spinning top and that is what the cluster of meat most closely resembles, a top that is constantly spinning on a fixed point. 

I love Tacos al Pastor with bits of pineapple sliced on top, and I was surprised when I found out that not all places include pineapples. Shawarma has no mention of pineapples, and doing some research it was very unclear where this practice came from. The acclaimed chef of Empellon Al Pastor Alex Stupak, discussed this with Tasting Table stating, “Where the addition of pineapple came from remains one of history’s most delicious mysteries.” As I researched more, I couldn’t find the reason behind pineapple in these tacos. I remembered what we discussed in class the first couple of weeks of the semester and how language plays a large role on what is curated in our internet searches. I decided to look into this delicious phenomenon in Spanish and I was able to find much more information. The most popular answer from taqueros and abuelitas alike was that the sweetness of the pineapple paired well with the salty and spicy taste of the pork, and that it had always been done that way.  I was able to find an article in Chilango’s online site. Chilango is an online site that speaks about what to do “en la Ciudada de Mexico: comida, antros, bares, musica, cine, cartelera teatral, y todos las noticias importantes”. What I found was an almost scientific answer for the reasoning behind adding pineapple to this dish. Pineapple or piña, tiene “un conjunto de enzimas digestivas”, these digestive enzymes are produced naturally in our bodies, however some people take supplements because their bodies don’t produce as much or they take supplements based on their diets. “Los síntomas de no producir adecuadamente estos compuestos son malestar abdominal, gases, indigestión”. Since the Tacos al Pastor are made mostly of meat and a plethora of spices the pineapple helps in bettering the digestion and of diffusing the spices because of the natural enzymes it has. One line of the article I loved is the last line in which the author compares a taquero to a doctor, chef and nutritionist, “Y aprecia y quiere a tu taquero, porque queda demostrado que además de ser excelente chef, tiene un aire de nutriólogo, doctor y hasta de curandero.”

This trompo is made in many different ways, the Netflix series “Taco Chronicles” traces the Lebanese and Mayan origins of these tacos and the four different ways these trompos are made. Author Alonso Ruvalcaba explains the four main forms. Proto Taco al Pastor which is a taco arabe in a tortilla, the pure Taco al Pastor where the meat looks like roasted meat, it is not red but meat color. The Trompo Rojo which is a taco with a lot more chile seasoning giving the meat a more red coloring. The fourth kind is where the trompo is layered with meat and a layer of  onion in between them making the meat become less roasted. 

With or without pineapple, red trompo or purist trompo there are many variations of Tacos al Pastor. One of them is called Gringas and they are most common in northern Mexico. Gringas are given their name due to the “white flour tortilla”, they are a “a delicious plate of al pastor and cheese melted into a flour tortilla.” 

Another variation is called Tacos Arabes, these tacos must use pan arabe to be considered Tacos Arabes. These are another staple dish that showcases how migration can be seen through food. Pan Arabe or Arabic bread is a pita bread style tortilla. These famous tacos come from Puebla and come with “marinated pork cut from a vertical spit, chipotle sauce, and the pan arabe.” The tacos looks like “small burrito, and are virtually indistinguishable from one, except it lacks rice, beans, and cheese as filler.” 

Halfway around the world these tacos are famous in the place that brought them to Mexico, the Middle East. A  chicken version marinated in the “al pastor” style was brought back to the Middle East in the early 2000s, and sold as “shawarma mexici”, This al pastor chicken is wrapped with garlic, mayonnaise, dill pickle and french fries wrapped in a thin flat bread. 

The Taco al Pastor has no rules, it has been made and remade in different ways all around the world. While some taco purists stray away from changing the delicious formula of the Taco al Pastor, others accept the challenge to see what else they can do with this iconic taco. Chef Roberto Solis in Monterrey Mexico was up for the challenge. At his restaurant Nectar, he created the black Taco al Pastor. The meat has its color due to the black paste/ sauce that is put on it. 

The Taco al Pastor is a dish that is boundless, from its inception it has been a mixing of cultures, ingredients, and people. The Taco al Pastor is a staple of Mexican food and American Mexican Food. Tacos al pastor can be found in Puebla York where they were first introduced by Bodega Taquerias “bodega taquería was where the taco placero first debuted in New York City, as well as the shawarma-style tacos Árabes on flour tortillas…Bodegas also introduced New Yorkers to Pueblan staples such as mole, the pumpkin-seed-based sauce pipián, pineapple-marinated tacos al pastor.” Tacos al Pastor are also immensely popular in California, Chicago and of course Mexico where they sell them all over the country. 

New York is not the only city that loves tacos al pastor, they are also loved in Southern California. Gustavo Arellano speaks about the plight of Mexico City immigrant Raul O. Martinez, selling tacos first in former ice cream truck and slowly turning his business into a boasting twenty location restaurant.

“It wasn’t until 1974 when an immigrant from Mexico City named Raul O. Martinez first sold tacos out of a former ice cream truck jury-rigged to support a stove and grill, that taco trucks truly emerged…he decided to open a restaurant but didn’t have the funds, so Martinez settled for a truck…But Martinez pushed on, going so far as to offer cuts that weren’t common even in Mexican restaurants yet- cabeza and al pastor, the central Mexico tradition of putting beef on a spit, a tradition taken from Lebanese people who immigrated to to the region early in the twentieth century.Martinez, his wife, and his father parked next to a bar in East Los Angels during a weekday night and sold seventy dollars’ worth that first time; within a week, his profits doubled. He opened a restaurant, King Taco; today King Taco is a Los Angeles institution boasting twenty locations and is patronized by politicians who need a photo op to show they’re down with the brown”

(Arellano 164-165)

This goes to show the power of the international taco al pastor. It helped start and elevate the taco trucks, and introduced people to a new kind of taco. The taco al pastor tells the tale of migrants, brought by Lebanese migrants to Mexico, and adapted into the culture and cuisine and brought by Mexican migrants into the United States reaching from shore to shore. The taco al pastor has endured the test of time and is welcomed by ready hands and stomach where ever it goes. It is so fascinating watching all the ways that this taco has come together from all different areas of the world. It really is a testament to the modern day notion of open food barriers and fusion. And it is delicious !

There is nothing like biting into a Taco al Pastor. The seasoned pork mixes with the lime, the sweet pineapple and the crunchiness of the pork mixes no nicely with the softness of the tortilla. It is also like biting into history seeing how different people came together to create this one dish! 

Work Cited

Alvarez, Steven. “Anyone Saying New York’s Mexican Food Sucks Hasn’t Visited Puebla York.” Eater, Eater, 23 Apr. 2019

Esparza, Bill. “Tacos in LA: A Complete Taco Encyclopedia of L.A.” Los Angeles Magazine, 21 June 2016

Onion, Amanda, and Missy Sullivan. “Ottoman Empire.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 3 Nov. 2017

Prichep, Deena, and Daniel Estrin. “Thank the Ottoman Empire for the Taco Al Pastor.” The World from PRX

http://www.tastingtable.com/dine/national/tacos-pastor-history.Salazar, Marisel. “The Truth Behind Tacos Al Pastor.” Tasting Table, Tasting Table, 26 Apr. 2017

Shams, Alex. “Inside the Arab Heart of Mexico City.” Middle East Eye, 2018

Spiegel, Alison. “Think You Know Where Tacos Al Pastor Come From? Think Again.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 7 Dec. 2017