The Origin and History of Mexico’s Most Famous Food: The Taco
Today I’m taking you on a long and fascinating journey through the history of tacos. I’m exploring with you the question of the taco origin and how this seemingly unimpressive dish has taken over the world.
If you’re a fan of Mexican cuisine and are interested in Mexican cultural expressions, you’re going to love this story. Keep reading to learn why tacos may have over 3,000 years of history, why a single machine revolutionized the taco culture in Mexico, and which are the most popular tacos these days.
Brief History of Tacos
In 2010, traditional Mexican cuisine was designated by UNESCO as “Intangible Heritage of Humanity.” It was the first national cuisine to receive such a designation and put Mexican gastronomy to the international spotlight.
However, “traditional Mexican cuisine” is a very loose term that includes so many things, ingredients, and dishes. From all that wide variety of elements that form Mexican gastronomy arguably the main one is the famous taco.
So, let’s explore a little bit of its history. Who invented tacos? When did tacos were invented? Where does tacos come from? And the most important question of all: why are tacos so incredibly delicious?
Pre-Hispanic Taco Origins
Although some versions suggest that tacos are the result of mestizaje, the mixing of Spanish and indigenous American peoples, there’s proof that people were eating tortillas in Mesoamerica long before the arrival of Spanish conquistadors.
Before the invention of the tortilla machine (more on that later), corn was grinded in a nixtamal to produce the masa or “corn dough” needed to make tortillas. Well, the oldest nixtamal ever recovered by archaeologists data from the year 1,500 BC and was found in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
To pretend that in 3,000 years no one ever thought of using the available tortillas to carry food inside as tacos do, is beyond preposterous. Actually, there’s a story about Moctezuma—the Aztec emperor at the time of the Spanish arrival—using tortillas as a spoon to hold the food. The distance from there to an actual taco is very short.
Finally, it’s said that the word taco comes from the Nahuatl words tlahco or tacuali which both mean “half” or “in the middle.”
Contemporary researcher Jeffrey M. Pilcher, professor of history at the University of Minnesota and author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, recognizes that the taco origin is unknown. However, he proposes an interesting theory about the origin of the word taco: in 18th century silver mines in Mexico the term “taco” was used to refer to little pieces of paper wrapped around gunpowder and inserted into the rock to excavate ore.
The physical description of these gunpowder tacos is strikingly similar to that of our modern day tacos. He also points out that one of the first types of tacos described in any written record are the tacos de minero or “miner’s tacos.”
What’s for sure is that by the beginning of the 20th century tacos of all kinds and styles could be found across the Mexican territory and were already one of the most popular dishes in Mexican people diets.
Revolutionizing Tacos: The Tortilla Machine
With the advent of modern life some of the traditional methods of Mexican cuisine became outdated and new solutions had to be invented to keep up with the changes in Mexican people routines and ways of eating.
That’s why in 1947, Fausto Celorio came up with a creation that would revolutionize the history of tacos and the whole Mexican gastronomy actually: the tortilla machine! With his invention, Celorio made the ancient nixtamal redundant and single-handedly industrialized the production of tortillas and, in consequence, the whole taco culture.
Perhaps because they’re so cheap or because you can make tacos out of pretty much every food you can think of, but the truth is that in the long history of tacos our time could be called “the golden age of tacos.”
They have even been the focus of a widely successful Netflix documentary series: The Taco Chronicles. If you love tacos as much as I do, you have to watch it today. If you aren’t particularly impressed by tacos I can assure you that you will, after watching just one episode.
This docuseries explores the history of tacos from the perspective of tacos themselves and focuses on a different kind of taco per episode. Here, I’m introducing you only to three of the most popular tacos in Mexico today, and one that’s controversial by its nature.
Tacos al Pastor
In the history of street tacos, the invention of tacos al pastor marked a before and after. Invented in the 1930s in the central Mexican state of Puebla by Lebanese immigrants who introduced the vertical skewer that you may have also seen in kebab restaurants all around the world.
Tacos al pastor are made of marinated pork, cilantro, onions, and pineapple. Add on top your spicy choice of salsa and you have the most popular taco of all time.
Tacos de Asada
If we had to go to ground zero in the history of tacos, tacos de asada would be there. Tacos de asada or “grilled-beef tacos” are considered the first tacos in history. It offers as many variations as different kinds of steak there are, but usually includes onions, cilantro, guacamole, and lime.
The history of fish tacos goes back to the middle of the 20th century when somewhere in Baja California some unknown hero decided to add deep-fried fish to a tortilla and top it with shredded cabbage, thin sour cream, salsa, and a bit of lime.
Exactly who that person was or in which restaurant was invented is hard to tell, but you can be sure of two things: one, the fish taco origin can be traced back to Bala California and two, fish tacos are a great idea!
Are Burritos Real Tacos?
That’s a controversial question and your answer depends on your definition of taco. Because burritos look like tacos, but many Mexican people would say that they aren’t real tacos. The reason for this weird taco discrimination is that for one, burritos aren’t made with corn tortilla, but with flour tortilla which makes a huge difference in flavor.
Does that mean that there can’t be flour tortilla tacos? Not exactly.
In the northern states of Mexico, flour tortillas are widely used and northern Mexican people make a lot of tacos with them. Usually, burritos are kind of wrapped, in some cases so much that people eat them with a fork and knife! A sacrilegious proposition for Mexican foodies.
Finally, the history of tacos and burritos is different. Burritos got famous in the United States, and are considered more of a staple of Tex-Mex cuisine, than of traditional Mexican cuisine. Personally, I would identify burritos closer to wraps than to tacos, but opinions are widely divided by Mexican gastronomy experts in this regard.
Useful Tacos Vocabulary
Now that you’re versed on the long and interesting history of tacos, let’s learn a few important words related to this most Mexican of delicacies:
|corn tortilla||la tortilla de maíz|
|flour tortilla||la tortilla de harina|
|grilled-beef||la carne asada|
|pork meat||la carne de cerdo|
|sour cream||la crema agria|
|taco maker||el taquero|
|taco restaurant||la taquería|
Enjoy Some Mexican Tacos in Spanish
Now that you know the rich history and origin of tacos and some of its most popular varieties, it’s time to go get into a good taquería and treat yourself to this extraordinary gastronomic gem. Just remember to practice your Spanish while ordering, and don’t forget to use your newly acquired taco vocabulary!
Speaking Spanish makes traveling to Mexico and ordering some delicious tacos way easier. You’re able to communicate with the locals and ask for the best taquerías in town or the most famous tacos around.
Sign up for a free class before your trip to Mexico with one of our certified, native Spanish-speaking teachers. They teach more than 24,000 actively enrolled students every month, offer flexible scheduling, and tailored Spanish packages and programs.
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