The taco may seem like a simple fast food, but it is inspired by a combination of ancient recipes from Mexico and influences from around the world. The taco is a food that may look a little different anywhere you go, but it’s one of the world’s favorite comfort foods. How did the taco become a Mexican favorite before becoming a global food phenomenon?
Taco Origins: The Ancient History of the Taco
Tacos originated in Mexico long before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. The true origin story is unknown. However, experts believe that the taco’s origin came about as a staple of an Olmec diet when the first traces of nixtamalized corn were discovered. You’ll also see “nixtamalized corn” on many packaged tortilla labels today to point to a modernized version of an ancient recipe. The Spanish conquistadors brought wheat flour with them, which was sometimes used as an alternative to making soft tortillas.
The most ancient mention of nixtamal dates back to the year 1,500 BC, found in Soconusco, Chiapas. Legend has it that Aztec emperor Moctezuma used the tortilla as a “spoon” to hold delicious ancient Mexican ingredients, including chili, beans and cochineal. Other fillings might also include fish.
Ancient tacos didn’t include lettuce, sour cream, cheese, tomato, radishes or any other modern Mexican twists on the taco that you see today. The modern taco is less than 100 years old, so obviously, the Aztecs missed out on carne asada tacos.
“Taco” or “Tlacho” – A Modern Invention
The word “taco” stems from the Náhuatl word “tlahco,” which means “half or in the middle.” Of course, this refers to how the taco is shaped or holds food. Náhuatl belongs to a group of languages from the Uto-Aztecan family, of which there are about 1.5 million indigenous speakers. It is the most common indigenous spoken language in Mexico.
The word “taco” is new, as of the last 100 years. It is said to originate from 18th-century Mexican silver miners who wrapped gunpowder in paper like a “taquito” and placed it between rocks before detonation. During this time period, “miner’s tacos” or “tacos de minero” became a staple food of the working class for both their cost-effective nutritional value and portability. These miner’s tacos would form the inspiration for future Mexican tacos.
During the 1950s, Mexico faced a job shortage and economic crisis. To make the best of things, San Vicente residents in Xiloxochitla, Tlaxcala, began selling basket tacos. Here, dozens of taco makers took to the streets on bicycles to sell their tacos. Today, you will likely see the same sight, some sellers on bicycles, some in vans or some with street carts.
In Puebla, tacos al pastor were born from the Lebanese migration to Mexico from the 1930s to the 1960s. The Lebanese had to work with the meat and the Mexican ingredients available to them. The Ottoman Empire dishes that inspired tacos al pastor include shawarma from Lebanon, the gyros of Greece and the döner kebab from Turkey.
Taco Origins: The Mexican-American Taco
In 1905, Mexican migrants arrived in the United States to work on the railway and conduct other labor, bringing with them the taco as street food. Like back at home, street vendors on bicycles and with food carts gathered near where Mexicans worked to offer them sustenance.
In Los Angeles, the women running Mexican food carts were known as “chili queens.” Americans also began to sample Mexican tacos. However, they were quite spicy and/or considered exotic to the American palate, and around 1920, Mexican immigrants began to adapt the taco to the American ingredients available, much like the Lebanese would have to adjust their dishes to their new country’s ingredients.
Over time, ground beef and chicken with lettuce and tomato were added, as well as other fresh herbs and vegetables available. However, this wasn’t quite the “Taco Bell” American fast food version of the taco that some may think of… Yet, the melting pot that is American culture, composed of so many different cultures, cuisines and ingredients available, has left its mark on the taco. Mexican tacos would become a global comfort food in the years to come.
Where Did the Crunchy Shell Come From?
The fried U-shaped taco shell that most Americans know and love for its crunch factor was actually a Mexican immigrant invention, originating in the 1940s. At this time, Mexican cookbooks already described the process of frying the tortilla and bending it into a U-shape.
The idea was patented to speed up the process of making tacos. Taco Bell would adapt this idea a decade later to streamline its own operations.
The original Mexican-American taco was a soft taco made from corn or sometimes wheat flour. However, it didn’t keep as well over time, so a hard shell taco lasted longer and allowed for more sales.
You’ll find tacos everywhere, whether it’s a Mexican-American fusion, something more authentic or something even more experimental. The tradition of Mexican street vendors selling tacos continues on street corners in Mexico, in the United States and around the world.
In the United States, the Mexican-American taco is turning away from the over-processed meat and cheddar cheese you may find at fast food chains and toward recipes that honor the taco’s Aztec roots, using Mexican ingredients and making the most of the ingredients available.
Taquerias are popping up, as food trucks and restaurants, offering tacos al pastor, de barbacoa and carnitas. The menus are in both Spanish and English, listing ingredients for authentically-flavored meats with radish slices, fresh cilantro and your choice of sauces, whether mild and spicy.
Simultaneously, chefs around the world are using the taco as a blank canvas for gastronomic exploration, fusing new flavors and ingredients into an ancient staple of the working class. Travel to any neighborhood in one city to sample different tacos, and it’s like taking a little vacation around the world. All this is thanks to the ancient history of taco origins in Mexico.
Start your taco journey with us today at Benito’s, where you can enjoy authentic Mexican food. Stop by for appetizers, lunch or dinner – dine in or take out!