Tacos al pastor. You may know their name but not their story.

These long-lasting parts of Mexican cuisine and a go-to street food choice are considered 100% Mexican but to tell the truth, we need to admit that in America – where immigrant food traditions are usually both identified and honoured- the vast culinary diversity is in some cases also related to immigrants, who brought their food and recipes with them Mexico.

In the case of tacos al pastor, the original récipe was brought by Lebanese 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 due to a multitude of different reasons such as evading military conscription, escaping violence, and searching for better economic opportunities.  

Many of them settled in a Mexican city called Puebla -about two hours outside Mexico City-.

During the 1930s, some of the Lebanese immigrants opened their own restaurants in which they served the popular Middle Eastern dish: classic shawarma, roast lamb served on a flour tortilla or pita bread (pan árabe). This creation was originally known as tacos árabes and used meat cooked on a vertical, or upright, grill.

Then, during the 1960s in Puebla, the Mexican-born children of these immigrants opened their own restaurants and put a Mexican twist from local people onto the popular Lebanese dish.

Mexican shepherds had addopted this grill technique and began preparing strips of marinated pork on vertical spits. This preparation was eventually called “al pastor,” which means “shepherd style.”

The main difference is that tacos árabes usually use lamb meat in tacos and it isn’t marinated. It has a more simple salt seasoning, and it’s served with a flour tortilla.

Mexican preference naturally shifted to chilli-marinated grilled pork. Marinated pork replaced lamb on the spit, and cilantro and onions were added to the mix. 

Thin slices of pork are marinated for three or four hours in spices and chiles like guajillo, achiote or adobo; they’re then stacked onto a long trompo, or spit. As the meat cooks, the outside layer gets crispy from exposure to the heat. The taquero, or taco maker, shaves off the outer layers straight into tortillas and might top the pork with sliced onion, cilantro and salsa. The vertical skewer is a key part of the equation, facilitating fat and juices to drip down onto the stack, basting it as it crisps.

The onions, cilantro and salsa of modern-day tacos al pastor are hallmarks of Mexican cuisine and the now-signature to this Lebanese dish. But in many cases, pineapple is loaded onto the spit—and then atop the cooked pork—as well that is sliced off and placed into the taco.

The addition of pineapple came from remains one of history’s most delicious mysteries. The most probable cause is that it’s easily accessible to the taco makers, and the belief that it marinates the meat is pure speculation. 

Of course, there are slightly different variations of tacos al pastor in the different regions, however, the preparation and cooking style of the pork remain relatively the same throughout Mexico.

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