What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word taco?
That might well depend on the part of the world you’re from. If you’re from the US, you might think of a hard folded corn shell filled with meat cooked with “taco seasoning”, lettuce, cheese, and sour cream. Even worse, you might associate the word with the chain restaurant Taco Bell.
But if you’re from Mexico, of Mexican descent or know something about Mexican food, you will associate the word taco with something completely different.
In Mexico, taco is more than a dish. Taco is a way to eat. Taco is even a verb in Mexican Spanish. “Taquear”, roughly translated as “to taco”, refers to the act of making or eating tacos either at home or out at a taqueria (taco restaurant). But, how exactly do you describe a taco, then?
To describe tacos, first we need to describe corn tortilla, a pre-Hispanic culinary engineering marvel. Tortilla is flat bread made with nixtamalized corn cooked over a griddle. Nixtamalization is a pre-Hispanic process that consists of boiling dry corn kernels with calcium hydroxide (slaked lime). After the corn has been cooked it rests overnight in the slaked lime water to be rinsed and ground the following day.
This process, which has been used in Mexico and Central America for around 3,500 years, adds an amazing flavor and aroma to the corn. But more importantly, it adds calcium to the tortillas, still one of the most important sources of this nutrient for many Mexicans, and improves the protein balance in the corn by washing away some nutritionally low quality zein protein.
Nixtamalized corn tortilla is the base for a real and delicious taco. Some tacos in Mexico aren’t made with corn tortillas, though. Another part of the taco, as important as the tortilla, is the filling. In Mexico tacos can have an infinite number of fillings. From the snack taco de sal (salt taco) eaten at the tortilleria (tortilla shop) to ease hunger before lunch time to tacos de guisado (stew tacos). A guisado can be any meat or vegetable cooked in some kind of sauce, some as intricate as moles.
In my research of tacos, which of course involves a lot of eating, in Mexico City I’ve come across so many different fillings that the list would be too long for this article. Some of my favorite ones are suadero (a cut very similar to brisket), chorizo (Mexican sausage), carnitas (pork marinated in beer and orange juice and deep fried in lard), barbacoa de borrego (mutton wrapped in maguey and banana leaves and cooked in earth pits) and the most chilango (a person or thing from Mexico City) of the all, tacos al pastor de trompo (pork marinated in spices and cooked in a spit that resembles a doner kabab).
Tortillas and fillings are very important for a good taco. However, according to my dad, who is a taco connoisseur, the part that makes a taco a success or a failure is the salsa. The best taquerias in Mexico know this and they pay special attention to the preparation of the salsas that will accompany the taco. Some are milder than others. Other salsas made with avocado are rich and creamy. Red salsas can be tomato or dried chile based. Green salsas can be tomatillo or fresh chile based. Pico de gallo is not uncommon. And some of the best salsas are prepared in molcajete (lava rock mortar and pestle).
Mexicans love complex flavors. This is especially true when it comes to tacos. Tacos combine the sweet flavor of the corn tortilla, the savory flavor of the filling (meat or vegetable) and the spicy flavor of the salsa.
However, some tacos explore this combination even deeper. For example, the meat used for tacos al pastor is prepared with different spices like cinnamon, dried chiles, raisins, anise seeds and annatto seeds. To add a final sweet touch the taco is topped with a pineapple slice.
Although not an essential part of a taco, other toppings such as nopales (cactus paddies), cebollitas (grilled onions), beans, potato, and others add flavor and complexity of the real Mexican taco.
Tacos in essence are very simple dishes. However, after learning more about them, by eating so many of them, of course, I’ve come to appreciate their complexity, variety and importance in the Mexican diet. I hope that with this article I was able to shed some light on this iconic Mexican dish and you too get to appreciate it better.
Some of the pictures were taken on the Eat Mexico Taco Tour