Tacos al pastor translates as “shepherd’s style tacos”, probably from the countryside technique of cooking large pieces of meat (sometimes whole animals) on a spear, rotating over a heat source. The history of the iconic Mexico City taco al pastor begins with the introduction of a vertical grill, which may be traced back to the doner kebap, created in Turkey in the 19th Century (then the lavish Ottoman Empire). The general description of that dish is of an inverted cone of pressed and seasoned lamb, grilled vertically, from which cooked thin layers are “shaved” off the surface, as they brown. This doner kebap became popular at the beginning of the 20th Century, when small restaurants offering the rotating grilled meat started joining the ranks of food services in Constantinople (now Istanbul); from there, every region controlled by the Ottoman Empire developed its own version: the original meat was lamb, also traditional for gyros in Greece; it was called kas, in Iraq; and shawarma in Lebanon and Syria, amongst others, where it could be made either pressed or as a pile of thin cutlets from any meat, except pork. Later on, Turkish immigrants brought the doner to Europe; Germany was the first to enjoy Döner Kebab in wrap form, in the mid 1960s. The Greek style gyro became popular in New York City in the early 1970s; Canada went a step forward when around 1973, also based on the Greek gyro, the “East Coast Donair”, was invented, adapting to the local taste by using beef instead of lamb, and by the creation of its one-of-a-kind sweet and garlicky creamy sauce, becoming the official food of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
In Mexico, there were two generations of wraps. First, in the 1930s, in Puebla, with the “taco árabe”, (“Arabian taco”), created by immigrants from the Middle East. This taco evolved from the original lamb recipe on pita because the choice of meat did not agree with the local – pedantic at times – taste preferences. A version with layers of pork and onions had much better luck, especially with the choice of pita bread or corn tortillas, and served with salsa. Later on, in the 1960s, the seasoning for the meat also changed to include pimentón (sweet paprika) and Mexican peppers, and the tacos were also stuffed with cilantro and onions. Finally, in Mexico City, by the mid 1960s, slivers of grilled pineapple could be seen flying right into these corn tortilla tacos, severed and masterfully propelled from the top of the spinning grill by the knife of a taquero (taco master), to become what it is now known as “tacos al pastor” (shepherd’s style tacos). In fact, restaurant “El Tizoncito” (Ave. Tamaulipas 122, Col. Condesa, Mexico City), founded in 1966 by Concepción Cervantes, aka Doña Conchita, has the claim of being the cradle of the taco al pastor; on their website’s home page, they explain that Doña Conchita created this Mexican delicacy inspired by the Middle Eastern shawarma and a toy top (“trompo” in Spanish). She used layers of pork loin, marinated in her secret recipe, piled as an inverted cone (the top, or trompo), and added two onions at the bottom and a whole peeled pineapple at the top of the rotating meat. What started as a humble taco joint, has become a prosperous business with many branches, with its original building remodelled into a trendy taco al pastor hub:
A while ago, I posted about my attempt to create a fusion of the Canadian donair and the Mexican taco al pastor, by preparing a meatloaf “East Coast” style, but with pork ground meat and modified seasonings, serving it on a corn tortilla with cilantro, onions, pineapple and hot salsa. I called my creation “Don Ari taco” (click here for recipe):
It was tasty, but as I mentioned in my previous post, I started really wanting to make a taco as close to the original as possible, after seeing again the real deal at a taco restaurant in Mexico City, shown below (notice the pineapple at the top) :
Tacos al pastor are known around the World, and may be found recreated in close proximity to the original recipe, meat propped in the shape of a top and all, and cooked with the traditional rotating vertical grill; an example is “El Trompo”, apparently the first taco shop in Toronto, named after their specialty, tacos al pastor:
However, there are many renditions that do not use the vertical grill, but manage to reproduce the flavour; below, a photo of a platter, taken by my husband, during a business trip in the US:
Even in Mexico, some restaurants cannot have a vertical grill fixture in their facilities, for example, inside Mexico City’s International Airport. Below, a platter of tacos al pastor on blue corn tortillas that I enjoyed there while waiting to board my plane:
The principle of a rotating grill is that it will provide a uniform contact with the heat source all around the meat, presumably a large piece, or as in the case of the trompo, a large volume of piled-up layers. While the whole piece slowly cooks, the exposed edge of the meat gets charred, so when the taco master shaves thin portions off the exterior surface, they will have a certain crispiness. Now, when made in small batches, the meat may be grilled in a single layer, in which case all the pieces will receive the same amount of heat, and hence, rotating becomes unnecessary. Having the mandatory cilantro, onions, pineapple chunks and red spicy sauce, along with lime wedges, completes the setting for a perfect match of flavours and textures.
The formula for the marinade is still somewhat secret, but the basic ingredients and seasonings are well known. To provide the bright red colour, some recipes call for sweet paprika, as it was used in the modified “Arabian taco”, while others (like mine) have opted for the milder flavour – and brighter colour – of annatto powder.
Homemade Shepherd’s Style Tacos –
Tacos al pastor caseros
2 lb (1 kg) boneless pork shoulder, loin, or leg
4 guajillo peppers; wiped clean
1 onion; peeled
1 clove garlic; peeled
1-2 bay leaves
½ cup vinegar; preferably apple cider or white wine
1 tbsp annatto powder (or sweet paprika)
½ tsp dry oregano; preferably Mexican, or use less
½ tsp dry marjoram
½ tsp black pepper
1 tsp salt, or to taste
2 tbsp oil, plus a little for the grill
1 bunch cilantro; washed and chopped coarsely
3 slices pineapple; core removed, halved
Spicy red salsa (click here for my recipe, or commercial)
Warm corn tortillas, preferably small “taqueras” (click here for my recipe, or packaged)
I started with a large package of pork sirloin boneless chops:
To attain the closest conditions of heat exposure as with a rotating grill, cut meat into thin slices, about 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick. I cut each chop into two thinner slices by running a very sharp knife across, parallel to the flat side:
Place thin sliced pork in a ceramic or glass container and reserve in the fridge. Slice peeled onion into quarters, chopping and reserving three quarters as a topping. Remove seeds and stems from the guajillo peppers; measure oil and vinegar; set them together with the last quarter of the onion, the garlic and the bay leaves:
Warm up oil in a pot over medium heat; fry onions until translucent, then add garlic and continue cooking until garlic is slightly browned, stirring constantly to avoid burning it (photo below, left). Add bay and guajillos, frying just for a few seconds until the peppers start to swell, being careful not to burn them. Add half the vinegar, stirring and scraping any bits from the bottom of the pan (photo below, right):
Add annatto powder (photo below, left), and the rest of the vinegar, stirring to incorporate (photo below, right):
Lower heat and cook for two to three more minutes, until the peppers become soft. Remove from heat and allow to cool down. Meanwhile, measure the oregano, marjoram, all-spice, salt and pepper:
Place the mix from the pot and the seasonings in a blender jar (photo below, left), and process until smooth (photo below, right):
Cover reserved pork with the sauce (photo below, left), making sure to coat all surfaces (photo below, right):
Return meat to the fridge, and allow to marinade for at least one hour.
Close to meal time, warm up a grill (indoor or outdoor). Grill pineapple, turning once, to mark grill lines on both sides:
Remove from the heat, slice into chunks and reserve. Brush the grill with oil and cook the marinated meat in small batches, flipping, until fully cooked and slightly charred:
Slice each piece of meat as thinly as possible with a very sharp knife, across the grain (photo, left), to simulate the “shaving” on a trompo, resulting in flavourful and slightly crisp “shavings” of al pastor pork (photo below, right):
Serve on warm tortillas, topped with chopped cilantro, onions, and a chunk of pineapple. Offer lime wedges and spicy red sauce on the side:
A delicious, homemade, taco al pastor:
Any leftover meat reheats beautifully in a lightly greased pan over medium heat.
Notes: 1) Alternative cooking method and 2) Vegan alternative:
1) An alternative cooking method, if a grill is not available, is to arrange the meat partially overlapped in a baking dish with rim:
And then baking at 375°F (190°C) for a few minutes, until fully cooked. Remove excess liquid from the dish and finish under the broiler for a couple of minutes:
Slice and serve as above. I found the meat was not as tender and juicy as when grilled, so use only if grilling is not available.
2) For a vegan alternative, use cooked green young jackfruit chunks instead of meat:
Shred jackfruit (photo below, left) and add al pastor seasoning (photo below, right):
After marinating, fry in two tablespoon of oil:
And serve as above:
I am linking to Cee’s Fun Foto Challenge (FFC) – Sense of Tasting.
I am bringing my recipe to Thursday Favourite Things #439 with Bev @ Eclectic Red Barn, Pam @ An Artful Mom, Katherine @ Katherine’s Corner, Amber @ Follow the Yellow Brick Home, Theresa @ Shoestring Elegance and Linda @ Crafts a la Mode.