The Unlikely Origin Of Tacos Al Pastor

It's difficult to find a more iconic taco than the spicy, juicy, meaty taco al pastor. Sure, there are tons of regional tacos — the fried fish taco in Baja California, the carne asada steak taco in Sonora, and the soupy birria taco in Jalisco (via Thrillist). But something about the taco al pastor is instantly recognizable, and it can be found anywhere, from Mexico City and Monterrey to Phoenix and Philadelphia.

Maybe it's the flavors that have granted it so much popularity. The pork has been marinated in guajillo chile, ancho chile, achiote paste, orange juice, and a heaping of spices: oregano, cumin, cloves (via My Latina Table). The marinade not only packs the meat with acidity and flavor but also gives the al pastor filling its bright orange coloring. If we really do eat with our eyes first, then the taco al pastor is delicious before it even hits your taste buds.

But the ubiquitous taco's journey began far away from Mexico. Actually, it didn't even start in the western hemisphere. The taco al pastor is undeniably Mexican, but there's another country to thank for its debut into the world: present-day Lebanon.

A Middle Eastern origin

As the 19th century faded into the 20th, Middle Eastern immigrants were arriving in Mexico  (via BBC News) — especially as war and instability gripped the Ottoman Empire. And, as immigrants often do, they brought their food practices with them. While they settled into their new home, Middle Eastern families continued cooking their traditional shawarma, a style of meat that's cooked vertically on a rotating spit.

According to Jeffrey Pilcher, the author of Planet Taco: A Global History of Mexican Food, this set the foundation for a new age of taco. "As they settled and opened restaurants in [the] 1930s, they were selling the shawarma and they were calling it tacos árabes – Arab tacos," Pilcher said. Tacos árabes are still cooked and thoroughly enjoyed, especially in the central Mexican state of Puebla. They're milder than tacos al pastor and always encased in a soft, sometimes thick, flour tortilla (via Eater). It's a still-standing tribute to the Middle Eastern immigrants who influenced the course of Mexican cuisine.

From árabes to al pastor

Still, while tacos árabes remain, the taco al pastor is far more widespread, especially within the sprawling food scene of Mexico City. In true shawarma style, al pastor pork is cooked on a spit. Usually, the taquero — the gifted soul creating the taco — stacks raw, sliced pork onto a vertical rotisserie spit known as a trompo. Once it's cooked — tender and crispy and pleasantly greasy — the pork is sliced, piled onto tortillas, and often topped with diced onion, cilantro, and lime (aka, the holy trinity of taco toppings).

Oh, and there's pineapple. How could we forget? Juicy, fresh slices of pineapple are layered atop the meat as it cooks, and they're often tossed into the taco itself. There's not much explanation for how, or when the pineapple got involved (via Huffington Post), but we're truly thankful. Pair your tacos with some homemade, pineapple tepache, and you've got a pretty incredible meal going on — not to mention historic.