One of the things I love to share about LA’s vast culinary diversity is that Angelenos are blessed – beyond measure – that immigrants came here, and brought their food with them.
One of the things I was quite amazed to learn about Mexico’s taco al pastor – its classic “shepherd’s taco” made with chili-marinated grilled pork – was inspired when humble immigrants brought their Middle Eastern food with them to Mexico.
It was originally a take on sharwarma, a Lebanese classic brought by its people to Mexico around the turn of the 20th century. Thousands of Lebanese immigrants found safe refuge in Mexico at that time, especially during the crumbling Ottoman Empire.
By the 1930s, they had begun to open restaurants specializing in sharwarma, traditional pita-style-wrapped grilled lamb sandwiches. They were known as tacos arabes – Arab tacos.
The Lebanese in Mexico
Many Lebanese settled in a Mexican city called Puebla (about 2 hours outside Mexico City) which, at one time was known as The City of Angels. I love that just as our own City of Angels has welcomed so many lovely Lebanese people – and their food to our tables – our sister-city-of-sorts in Mexico shares a similar story.
While imagining how incredibly delicious a taco arabe with lamb would taste, I was interested to learn that soon, the Mexican preference naturally shifted to pork. This happened especially during the 1960s. During the excitement of a culinary boom in Mexico City, the second-generation of Lebanese-Mexicans wanted to adapt the original idea.
Mexicans don’t eat lamb. Their first trial substitute – beef – wasn’t popular either.
Pork was very kindly received on the Lebanese-style pits, which Mexico calls a trompo (shown in photo above), to mean a spinning top, wider at the top with a narrow bottom. Cooks began seasoning the pork with a special chili marinade, and the now-signature from this unusual grill became extremely popular. Aficionados also took kindly to the “tropicalized” addition of locally-grown pineapple chunks on the tacos, along with diced onion and cilantro leaves.
Corn tortillas, especially those small and street-taco-sized, became the popular bed for the grilled pork and condiments, replacing its original wrap. Apparently in Puebla, some shops still serve taco al pastor wrapped in the pita-style bread.
For most Mexicans by now, the origin of these popular tacos has been as good as erased, to the sadness of food historians and culture enthusiasts. It is said that unlike in America – where immigrant food traditions are usually both identified and honored – this type of recognition isn’t the same in Mexico.
Tacos al pastor are considered 100% Mexican but, now you know the rest of the story.
Until next time, I remain ~
Your Chef and Tour Maestra