Written by: Amanda Csolak for Spice Station Silver Lake
“It’s Taco Tuesday!” is a popular phrase often heard amongst taco fans all across America. Whether you’re out at your local favorite Mexican restaurant, popping by your neighborhood taco food truck, or making them yourself at home, tacos have become a staple meal in many American homes. But just how did this tasty Mexican-influenced food make its way into our hearts? This article will discuss the history of the taco, its significance in American culture, and the many different ways a taco can be made. Plus as always, I’ll include a little recipe for you at the bottom to make some of the best tacos you’ve ever tasted with some surprise ingredients that will leave you wanting more.
The History of the Taco
The taco that we all know and love today is quite different from the version natives in Mexico were eating long before it became the popular Tuesday night meal that it is today in the United States.
So where did one of America’s top favorite comfort foods come from? Let’s break down the history of what is arguably one of the best foods in existence.
The exact origins of the taco begin with one ingredient, corn. Approximately around 3,000 BC, the Mexican people excavated the “Valle de Tehuac”, or Tehuacán Valley matorral, a xeric shrubland ecoregion located in Central Mexico, and then hybridized grasses to create the corn plant. Indigenous people of the time believed corn to be the seed of life. Corn was revered by the ancient civilizations for being a life-sustaining food, quite literally keeping them alive.
Though there are no documented records that can trace back the exact history of the taco, historians can pinpoint the origin of the corn tortilla, a staple food item used to make a traditional Mexican taco. Without the corn tortilla, there would be no taco.
The invention of the corn tortilla has been discovered to have originated around the mid-15th century. You see, in order to grind corn husks down to a fine corn flour, necessary to making corn tortillas, the corn kernels have to be nixtamalized, a treatment involving boiling and soaking corn with calcium hydroxide (“cal”). Historians can date the first evidence of nixtamalized corn back to a Mesoamerican civilization, the Olmec culture, meaning they likely made a basic corn flatbread or tortillas in their regular diets.
One of the first to enjoy a taco like food was, Moctezuma I, the second Aztec emperor of Mexico, who ruled from 1440-1469, was said to have used these corn tortillas to scoop and contain food that had been cooked using a hot stone preparation.
The Evolution of the Taco
The taco has come a long way since its origin days. You can’t travel through any city without finding somewhere to eat a taco. They exist in every form, from beef tacos to fish tacos and even tacos with steak or pulled pork. There are even vegan options available in most restaurants and taco stands today. But in its origin days, the taco wasn’t as fancy or complex as it is today. The toppings most Americans think of, the lettuce, tomatoes and cheese, simply weren’t a part of the original taco. In fact, the taco as we know it today, is less than one-hundred years old.
Ancient Mesoamerican cultures filled their soft corn tortillas and stuffed them with fillings such as fish and cooked organ meat, which sounds less than appealing to most modern taco fans, but for the people of the time it was a staple meal that offered vital energy and nutrients. These people may have been the first to invent the taco, but they didn’t refer to it by that word. The word “taco” is actually quite a new word.
The word “taco” traces back to the 19th century in the booming silver mines of Mexico. By this time, the taco was known as the food of the working class citizens, including the hard working silver miners who likely named the taco after an explosive. Experts believe the word initially referred to gunpowder that was wrapped in a piece of thin paper, this early form of dynamite was used to blow holes into the rock face and allow the miners to excavate the ore. With the similar appearance, its easy to see how the taco got its modern moniker.
From there, tacos popularity spread throughout Mexico and Taquerias, a food cart or restaurant specializing in tacos and other Mexican meals, began appearing throughout the country.
At the time, many Mexican railroad workers and miners, would travel to America for work, bringing their wives and families with them. Their wives often would bring food from their culture, like chili con carne and tacos, to the streets of Texas cities such as San Antonio, selling these tasty Mexican foods to Americans. These women, known as Chili Queens, are credited with the invention of the Tex-Mex cuisine. The creation of Tex-Mex led to the modern taco we all love today, with people adding ingredients found regionally such as ground beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato.
Dissecting the Authentic Mexican Taco
Places like Taco Bell may have popularized the hard-shell taco first created by Mexican-American taco stand owners, but the taco of today is nothing like the original. If you’re looking for a truly authentic Mexican taco you will want to make sure the taco consists of the following characteristics:
- Authentic Mexican tortillas are made using corn, rarely flour
- A true Mexican taco will never involve a hard shell tortilla
- Mexican tacos are commonly topped with cabbage, cilantro, and white onion
- Cheese and sour cream are not usually found on a Mexican taco
- Surprisingly, a traditional Mexican taco isn’t spicy
- An authentic, Mexican taco’s meat is marinated using spices like chilis, cumin, lime, oregano, and paprika, and is then sprinkled with salt and pepper after it is cooked.
Tacos in Mexico have some common roots, but with the vast and diverse cultural influences from all over the country, each region adds its own unique twist. From the fresh seafood tacos of Baja to the spicy pastor tacos of Mexico City, there’s a world of flavors to explore. So while there’s a shared taco heritage, don’t expect them to taste the same everywhere! Whether it’s the ingredients, the method of cooking, or the type of tortilla used, every region in Mexico offers its own delicious take on this beloved dish. So next time you’re munching on a taco, remember that it’s a bite of a rich and varied culinary tradition.
Finding Mexican Spices in America
If you’re like me, you enjoy cooking and trying new foods, and if you haven’t yet tried an authentic mexican taco than I’ve got you covered. In order to make the best, you need the best ingredients and that includes the best spices. The absolute best place to find every spice you can imagine is right here at Spice Station Silverlake. Not only does Spice Station have everything you need for that authentic taco tuesday night, they have unique spices from all over the world that you simply won’t find anywhere else.
Easy and Authentic Mexican Street Taco Recipe
Quick, easy and authentic carne asada street tacos topped with cotija cheese, onion, cilantro and fresh lime juice. Delicious!
Prep Time: 1 Hour and 15 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 Hour and 30 minutes
Yields: 4 servings
Equipment You’ll Need: One medium sized and one large mixing bowl, a mortar and pestle for grinding dry spices, and a large skillet.
- 2 tablespoons reduced sodium soy sauce
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
- 2 tablespoons canola oil, divided
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp. Chili blend 7 powder or chili powder
- 1 tbsp. Cumin seeds, ground
- 1 tsp. dried Mexican oregano
- 1 ½ pounds skirt steak, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 12 mini corn tortillas, warmed
- ¾ cup diced white onion
- ½ cup chopped fresh cilantro leaves
- 1 lime, cut into wedges
- In a medium bowl, combine soy sauce, lime juice, 1 tablespoon canola oil, garlic, chili blend 7 powder, cumin and oregano.
- In a gallon size Ziploc bag or large bowl, combine soy sauce mixture and steak; marinate for at least 1 hour, or up to 4 hours, turning the bag occasionally.
- Heat remaining 1 tablespoon canola oil in a large skillet over medium high heat. Add steak and marinade, and cook, stirring often, until steak has browned and marinade has reduced, about 5-6 minutes, or until desired doneness.
- Serve steak in tortillas, topped with onion, cilantro and lime.