RE-ENVISION is an ongoing series of research memos produced by our associates at Appetite. We trace the cultural genealogies of food from around the world to challenge commonly held beliefs about origin and authenticity.
As one of the most iconic street foods in South America, the taco has a history that predates Mexico before Spanish colonisation.1 In Mexico, the word taco is known as a generic term similar to the word sandwich.2
It is composed of two components: the filling and the tortilla. The tortilla is a thin flatbread that is made of treated and dried corn kernels. Any ingredient encased within a tortilla can qualify as a taco.3 The broad definition of the dish has led to its versatility and different variations across the globe.
The variations of the taco are differentiated by the sizes and types of tortillas, filling preparation methods, and types of garnishes.
Tacos al pastor (literally meaning “shepherd’s-style tacos”) is a well-known variation that is made of thin pork steaks seasoned with dry seasoning and cooked on a vertical rotisserie. Another common version is the tacos de Pescado which is filled with batter-dipped fried fish fillets. The fillings of tacos are not just limited to fish and pork but can range from chicken to parts of a cow’s head.
The origins of the taco begin with the cultivation of corn in pre-hispanic South and Central America.4 Being one of the three staples of Native American culture, indigienous communities frequently cooked with corn and corn products such as cornmeal and harinilla.5
Cornmeal is created by grinding up dried corn. Haranilla, although similar to cornmeal, requires an extra step that is unique to Central America: nixtamalization. Through this process, dried corn is soaked and cooked in lime water, washed, and then hulled.
Nixtamalization helps to release hemicellulose that transforms the corn into a kneadable dough.6 By putting cornmeal through lime water, Native Americans were able to grind the product and create tortillas. In later years, researchers found out that the extra step also removes poisonous carcinogens produced by moulds and creates free niacin that helps to prevent pellagra, a disease caused by Vitamin B-3 deficiency.7
Before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century, tacos were traditionally paired with indigenous ingredients, such as pumpkin, fish, beans, and turkey.8 From 1519 to 1521, the Spanish invaded and conquered the Aztec Empire in what is now Mexico.9 With substantial territorial control across South America and Southeast Asia, the Spanish Empire was exposed to a multitude of food cultures from their trading activities.10
Upon their arrival in South America, the Spanish brought pigs from Cuba; sheep and lettuce from Europe (initially transported to Europe from Egypt before the 11th century); goats from Iran; chickens from India; olive oil from Asia Minor; cinnamon and black pepper from India; parsley from the Central Mediterranean region; coriander from Western Asia and Southern Europe; oregano from Eurasia and the Mediterranean region; Asian rice (Oryza sativa) from China; and limes from Indonesia and Malaysia.11,12 These ingredients were subsequently incorporated into traditional Central American cuisine and forever changed the fillings and toppings of tacos. The beloved taco that we know of today is a synthesis of ingredients from not only the New World but from the Old World, Asia, and the Middle East.
The definition of a taco can be boiled down to a dish that serves an ingredient (mainly meat) wrapped in flatbread. Using this definition, multiple analogues can be found around the world. We discovered that gyros in Greece and shawarma in the Middle East made use of a tortilla-like flatbread, pita.13,14 Further east, we identified Chinese dishes such as Peking duck and gua bao that utilise moo shu pancakes and lotus leaf buns to also be similar in kind to the taco.
Stradley, Linda. n.d. “Tortilla and Taco History.” What’s Cooking America (blog).
Linda Stradley writes about the histories of Tortilla and Taco. For each food item, she breaks down the timeline and details when each component was created, discovered, and expanded into different countries.
Graber, Karen Hursh. 2006. ‘Wrap It Up: A Guide To Mexican Street Tacos – Part I’. Mexconnect (blog). 1 January 2006.
The article by Karen Hursh Graber, talks about the components and history of Tacos in Mexico. She highlights the different popular variations of the dish and the how each variation is differentiated from one another.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. “Lime.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The article by Karen Hursh Graber talks about the components and history of Tacos in Mexico. She highlights the popular variations of the dish and how each variety can differentiated from one another.
Hernández, Bernat. 2018. “Guns, Germs, and Horses Brought Cortés Victory over the Mighty Aztec Empire.” National Geographic, December 18, 2018.
Bernat Hernández describes the chronicles of Hernán Cortés and his invasion of the Aztec empire. His overwhelming victory over the empire and the dominance of the Spanish conquests in the 16th century outlines the potential cultural and culinary exchanges between both cultures.
“Native American Food.” n.d. Indians.Org (blog).
The article points out the indigenous ingredients consumed in pre-hispanic Mexico. It also shows how Mexican cuisine has evolved after the introduction of different ingredients by the Spanish. The article also highlights the importance of corn and how Native Americans used it to create tortillas.
Written by Nicholas Koh.
1 Stradley, Linda. n.d. “Tortilla and Taco History.” What’s Cooking America (blog). https://whatscookingamerica.net/History/Tortilla_Taco_history.htm.
4The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. “Corn.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/plant/corn-plant.
5 “Native American Food.” n.d. Indians.Org (blog). http://indians.org/articles/native-american-food.html.
6 Rai, Mahendra, and Ajit Varma, eds. 2010. Mycotoxins in Food, Feed and Bioweapons. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-00725-5.
7Carmen, Wacher. 2003. “Nixtamalization, A Mesoamerican Technology to Process Maize at Small Scale with Great Potential for Improving the Nutritional Quality of Maize Based Foods.” 2nd International
8“Traditional Mexican Food.” n.d. Aztec-History.Com (blog). http://www.aztec-history.com/traditional-mexican-food.html.
9Hernández, Bernat. 2018. “Guns, Germs, and Horses Brought Cortés Victory over the Mighty Aztec Empire.” National Geographic, December 18, 2018. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/magazine/2016/05-06/cortes-tenochtitlan/.
10Lockhart, James, and Stuart B. Schwartz. 1983. Early Latin America: A History of Colonial Spanish America and Brazil. Cambridge Latin American Studies 46. Cambridge [Cambridgeshire] ; New York: Cambridge University Press.
11“History of Rice Cultivation.” n.d. In Ricepedia.Org. http://ricepedia.org/culture/history-of-rice-cultivation.
12The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. “Lime.” In Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/plant/lime.
13Segal, David. 2009. “The Gyro’s History Unfolds.” The New York Times, July 14, 2009. https://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/15/dining/15gyro.html?_r=0.
14Marks, Gil. 2010. Encyclopedia of Jewish Food. Hoboken, N.J: Wiley.