The history of the taco is a fascinating and colourful one, as evidenced here. But perhaps one of the more curious styles – not to mention most delicious – is the taco al pastor.
Tacos al pastor have their origins in Mexico’s Lebanese immigrant community. Those roots are obvious when you see al pastor being prepared at a restaurant or food stall. The pork is grilled on a vertical spit and sliced off in thin strips, looking very much like a shawarma to the uninitiated (of course, that’s not ideal for home cooking, but there’s nothing stopping you from achieving similar results).
The shawarma had become popular in the Ottoman Empire during the 19th century, usually made with lamb, mutton, or chicken, in keeping with Islamic dietary restrictions on pork. However, the immigrants from Lebanon who brought it over to Mexico in the early 1900s were generally Christians, such as the Maronites. They had no such qualms about eating pork, so it wasn’t long before the shawarma started evolving into a Mexican culinary classic.
This evolution was helped along by another accident of history, which gave tacos al pastor their name. Many of those first Lebanese Christian migrants had been shepherds back in their homeland and continued to be so in their adopted country. With spit cooking particularly well suited to outdoor cooking, it wasn’t long before other shepherds took note of such practices and started doing it themselves.
Eventually, as the children of these shepherds began to move to cities and open restaurants and food stalls there, the spit-grilled pork became popular among people of all walks of life and needed a name. What better than al pastor, which means 'shepherd style'?
As well as the switch to pork, al pastor is prepared using a traditional Mexican abodaba marinade – usually made with red chilli, vinegar, and oregano. In fact, if you’re in northern Mexico, you may see it referred to as al abodaba instead.
Another ingredient added to the al pastor is pineapple, which is also a common side or topping. Of course, as with all tacos, part of the fun is loading the tortilla with tasty additions, like chopped onions and fresh coriander. But nobody’s stopping you from adding your other favourite Mexican staples too, like guacamole or salsa.
So if your taco nights are starting to feel a bit stale, stop persevering with the same old chicken or ground beef recipe and try tacos al pastor on for size instead. Also, don’t forget, that there’s nothing limiting you to tacos here either. If you fancy burritos al pastor or quesadillas al pastor instead, go right ahead. All you need to do is learn how to prepare the pork the right way, as outlined below.
Tacos al pastor recipe
Al pastor is traditionally prepared on a spit, but who has one of those in their kitchen? This recipe will show you how to make tacos al pastor with a pan. One that distributes heat evenly is best, like a cast-iron skillet.
There are a couple of important things to note here. Firstly, allow some time for the pork to marinate. It will need at least 2 hours, but you can also leave it overnight.
Also, it isn’t the end of the world if you can’t find achiote. Its main job is to give the al pastor a reddish hue, but if you think you might miss the slight hint of smoke that it imbues, smoked paprika is a decent substitute.
2 lb pork shoulder, thinly sliced
4 tbsp cooking oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 dry guajillo chilis
2 tsp cumin, ground
1 tbsp Mexican oregano
1 spear pineapple
70 ml pineapple juice (approx. ¼ cup)
2 tsp salt
2 tbsp vinegar
1 tbsp achiote, ground
Fire up your skillet over a medium high heat and add 2 tablespoons of the cooking oil. Stir in the garlic and guajillo chilis until lightly browned and remove from the heat to cool for 5 minutes.
Once the oil mixture has cooled, pour it into a blender and add the cumin, Mexican oregano, pineapple spear, pineapple juice, salt, vinegar, and achiote.
Blend the ingredients into a smooth marinade. This should only take 20–30 seconds with a good blender.
Seal your sliced pork in a plastic bag or tupperware container with the marinade. Give it a shake to ensure it’s coated evenly.
Place the pork in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours to marinate, if not overnight.
Once the pork is ready to cook, heat the other 2 tablespoons of oil in your skillet over a medium high heat and start frying the pork in batches so you don’t crowd the pan. Cook each batch of pork for about 3 minutes until slightly charred and cooked all the way through.
Serve the al pastor on warm tortillas topped with chopped onion, fresh coriander, and a squeeze of lime. If you have any fresh pineapple remaining, serve it on the side in rings, or cubed as a topping.
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