Friday, January 25, 2008

Mexico’s answer to the schwarma

I have finally gotten the green light to begin my survey of chile producers in the region, so the chile chase will become the chile canvass very soon. Until that update, enjoy this piece about my favorite taco, al pastor.

If I return from Mexico slightly above my fighting weight, the blame can be laid squarely on tacos al pastor. Literally translated to “shepherd’s tacos”, tacos al pastor are thinly sliced pieces of rotisserie marinated pork leg served in a corn tortilla with a slice of pineapple, diced onions and shredded cilantro. Like the title of this post alludes to, the cuts of pork are stacked vertically, and thin slices are carved off as the outside portion begins to cook, leaving a tapered shape to the stack. Between the visual cues of the bright yellow pineapple, the dark red seasoned pork and the roar of the gas-powered rotisserie, the combination is more hypnotic than a barber’s pole never-ending stripes. Needless to say, the vertical rotisserie (called a trompo, lit. “spinning top”) is placed in the most visible part of the taqueria as to maximize the number of passerby who become ensnared by it’s siren song. As each taco is about 3 or 4 bites, its not uncommon to eat 7 or more in one sitting.

From what I understand of its history, it is another great example of culinary mestizaje, or mixing of the indigenous with the foreign, the process that has made Mexican cuisine so diverse across its various regions. Tacos al pastor are thought to have been an adaptation of the Middle Eastern schwarma or the Turkish döner kebab that were brought by a wave of Lebanese immigrants. First made with lamb (and hence the name al pastor), al pastor now is exclusively made with pork, a switch that probably ensured its place in the pantheon of Mexican regional tacos – carne asada in the North, fish tacos in Baja, birria in the central west, cabeza in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Traces of this history can still be found at the modern al pastor serving taquerias. Many of the taquerias still have an order called taco arabe, which will be served in pita-like bread. My local taqueria has gone as far as to name these orders with recognizable Arab names, such as the “Saddam Hussein” and the “Osama bin Laden”.

Tacos al pastor are a night food – a small dinner or a late night snack. My local taqueria here in Aguascalientes starts their rotissierie up at 5 PM every day and will run it until 4 or 5 AM. They start with about 40 lbs of pastor on the weekdays, and up to 90 lbs on the weekends. The marinade they use has some 25 different ingredients – I guessed at about 8 of them – orange juice, annatto, dried chiles (guajillo, arbol), clove, wine, salt, pepper, garlic… Duplicating the marinade will not be a problem, but how am I to replicate the trompo? Without that rotisserie, it just won't taste the same. Well there is a solution for everything. My new friend, Javier who runs the trompo pictured above, mentioned that I could easily find a trompo to import for as little as 380 dollars.

Tacos anyone?