Kate's Global Kitchen
Kate Heyhoe  

Mixing the Taco Salad

by Kate Heyhoe


We think of the United States as the ultimate melting pot, but we're not the only American nation with cultural intermingling...

At the beginning of the 20th Century, hundreds of Japanese were brought to Brazil and Peru as plantation laborers. The coffee and sugar industries were suffering a drastic shortage of farm workers at the time. Over the years more Japanese arrived, forming tight-knit communities. Gradually, they moved away from being rural farm workers to industrious urban shopkeepers, barbers, and restaurant owners. Today, Brazil hosts the largest enclave of Japanese outside of Japan, and Peruvians even elected Alberto Fujimori, born of Japanese parents, as president in 1990. Brazilian Japanese have recently begun immigrating to Japan, bringing Brazilian food with them; and the famous Japanese chef Nobu honed his craft in Peru, which explains why chili peppers mingle with sushi in his recipes.

Taco Pop Quiz Time: What do tacos al pastor and actress Salma Hayek have in common? Answer: Both are products of a Lebanese and Mexican communion. The actress, acclaimed for her portrayal of Mexican artist Frieda Kahlo in the film Frida, was born to a Lebanese father and Spanish-Mexican mother in Veracruz in 1968.

Seven decades before Hayak's birth, a large wave of Lebanese emigrants poured into Mexico at the encouragement of the Mexican government, to escape religious and political persecution in their homeland. With them came traditional foods, including shwarma: meat stacked and roasted on a vertical spit, known in Mexico as a trompo, or top. The trompo rotates slowly in front of a glowing charcoal or gas flame, and the taquero shaves the cooked meat from the outer layers into shreds (similar to Greek gyros). Instead of lamb and pita bread, the emigrants substituted pork and tortillas.

Today these "tacos al pastor," meaning "shepherd's tacos" are a favorite street food. Slow spinning logs of meat, spiked with a pineapple on top, send sweet and smoky wafts down streets and alleys throughout Mexico. If you order tacos al pastor in Puebla, Mexico's fourth largest city, well-populated with Lebanese, you'll likely be served your taco not in a corn tortilla, but in another Lebanese-Mexican hybrid: pan arabe, a cross between a tortilla and pita bread. Today, more than 200,000 Lebanese and Syrians live in Mexico. Areas like Merida and Veracruz are thick with Middle Eastern restaurants, and ground meat skewers known as kibbe are as popular in these towns as pizza is in the U.S.

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In pre-Columbian Mexico, tacos were made without pork or beef, since these meat sources arrived with the Spanish. The first tacos contained corn, beans, chiles, and the other indigenous crops of the Americas: tomato, avocado, potato, pumpkin, and other squash, to name a few. Occasionally, a wild turkey would be trapped, cooked, and the meat tossed into the tortilla, as would a duck, or an armadillo.

So, the concept of using non-Mexican ingredients with tacos isn't as much of a stretch as it may seem—and vice versa. Remember that the chile-rich sauces so popular in Chinese, Thai, Korean, and other Asian cultures aren't completely Asian in heritage. Since the chile pepper didn't exist outside of the Americas until Spanish and Portuguese traders spread it to other continents, Asian and East Indian cuisines actually owe some of their distinctive flavors to Mexico and Latin America. These are, essentially, worldly ingredients with a Latin accent, so as taco seasonings, Asian chile-sauces and curry pastes can seem right at home.

Life without tacos would be such a pity. To remind us of just how delicious Latin cooking can be, with its Lebanese, Spanish and other accents, I've rolled up a few spicy favorites from Foodwine.com files, ranging from meaty fillings to caramel-sweet flan (a Spanish gift).

Hasta la vista, baby!


Copyright © 2006, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.


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