What is the single most well-known, most iconic and most recognizable Mexican food? Tacos! For better or for worse, tacos must be the answer! Few dishes have achieved as much international fame and accolade as the humble taco and few have been as bastardized and sadly misunderstood.
TACOS! In all their over-stuffed glory! Cooked by The Johan, styled by Malou Rotvel Pagh
In this, the fifth instalment of our Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food, we pay homage to the hugely popular and often misunderstood Mexican street food classic. Through the very simplest of questions: “what makes a traditional taco?”, we explore the history and basic composition of the taco from the bottom up, starting with the essentials: a perfect homemade tortilla, talk a bit about the fundamentals of nutrition and the importance of maize in Meso-American culture, make our own perfect homemade corn tortillas from scratch and introduce a few very basic and very classic set of toppings, including my personal favorite, Carne Asada.
But first, the very basics, what the hell is – and what isn’t – a taco?
Tacos – Mexican street food par excellence
Ask yourself this seemingly simple question: what is a taco? To those of us tainted by American and European TexMex culture, the first image that pops to mind may well be a deep-fried taco shell stuffed with some sort of formless ground beef flavored with a seasoning pack of chemical flavor enhancers then topped with lettuce, tomatoes and, if you’re lucky, cold, orange cheddar cheese! Yum!
In reality, the true image of a taco couldn’t be further from the abomination described above and thankfully the culinary world – even the cold streets of Copenhagen, Denmark – is waking up to this fact. Tacos, in their true form are not abominations, they are Mexican street food par excellence. A small, cheap but nourishing meal that could be whipped up in seconds and was meant to be eaten on the go. Tacos, in the most general sense of the word refer to a small, pliable tortilla wrapped around a filling of sorts and are usually meant to be eaten without utensils. A sort of truly oddly shaped Mexican hotdog or sandwich, if you will, but only much more versatile and flavorful.
Tacos don’t have to be elaborate, here we see some rather authentic and rather greasy street food tacos
Speaking of hotdogs, tacos – like hotdogs – come in a number of forms and combinations, from the exceedingly simple to the borderline hopelessly artisan and complicated. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is important – to realize here that as with so many other Mexican dishes (burritos, tostadas and more), the name of the dish refers more to the general shape and fundamentals of the dish rather than the exact form and composition.
The exact composition, on the other hand, is defined by a number of pre- and postfixes such as Carne Asada Tacos, Tacos Al Pastor and Tacos de Lengua (beef tongue tacos are, believe it or not, a taqueria benchmark by Mexican standards) meant to describe the filling. For now, what you need to know and consequently remember is that taco, in broad, general terms refers simply to a dish in which one or more fillings of sorts are served conveniently on a small tortilla meant to be eaten by hand. Curiously, this very fact immediately eliminates from the taco playing field the very object that many of us gringos think of when we hear the word taco.
Hard shell tacos, an American invention
One of the first problems with the hard-shell taco that most of us know and some claim to love – is that it doesn’t very well fulfil the cardinal rule of tacos: it doesn’t lend well to being eaten by hand – at all. We’ve all tried, several times over, we’ve all looked like proper idiots trying and we’ve all eventually failed miserably and sunk into a slur of profanity as an all too familiar snapping sound results in an ingredient messy landslide of semi-authentic ingredients and dry cleaning bills.
How did we come to this? Well, it should come as no surprise to anybody, really, the hard-shell taco of Taco Bell and DIY taco kit fame is not actually a Mexican invention. First mentioned in a late 1940’s cookbook, the process of deep-frying tacos was championed and patented in 1950 by Juvencio Maldonado, a Mexican-American, who back in 1947, in true American fashion, pondered a hundred-year-old staple, concluding something along the lines of “that’s a mighty fine snack, that is. I wonder what happens if we deep-fry that!” In doing so he essentially created a Tex-Mex abomination that given a lot of help from the massive business and marketing talent Glen Bell of Taco Bell fame, rose to fame fueled mainly by low production costs, a long shelf-life, clever packaging, distribution and marketing. All things the original taco lacked. That’s right, the “American” taco came into fame out of convenience, not superiority.
And just like that, at the touch of a deep-fryer thermostat in the 1940’s, a fast food empire was born at the cost of one of the most iconic, historically important and absolutely basics of Mexican cuisine – the soft corn tortilla – that disappeared largely into obscurity throughout many parts of the world for the good part of half a century.
Authentic tacos: What are tacos really?
Luckily, the times they are a-changing and
hipsters people around the world are waking up the the realization that the true taco delivery vessel is what came before the gringos fired up their fryers: a soft and pliable tortilla that that wraps around the filling and facilitates eating rather than hindering it.
Some rather not so simple artisan tacos featuring blue corn tortillas and more or less traditional garnishes.
Now, technically speaking, tortillas can be made from either flour or corn, but in the mind of this humble food blogger, only one variety truly fits the taco application: corn tortillas! Not only are corn tortillas superior in flavor and texture to their flour counterparts. No, corn tortillas are an integral and important part of Mexican and Mesoamerican culture. Why so important? Because simple as they may seem, corn tortillas are more than just dried corn and water, they are the foundations on which tacos – and but entire cultures themselves – were built!
Bread is life: Masa Harina
How are tortillas made? Well, many people are under the quite forgivable yet entirely faulty assumption that corn tortillas are made from corn meal. Simple, right? Well, they are not. For one very obvious reason: Corn meal, will not under any circumstances turn into a dough through addition of water. Anyone who has ever made polenta or grits will probably know this and have wondered how exactly the Mexicans did it.
Well, here’s the beauty of it, class. Tortillas, are not made from corn meal, they are made from a somewhat similar (in appearance) substance known as masa. Masa is, essentially, also made from dried maize but with one important difference over corn meal: it has gone through a little something called the nixtamalization process. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Ahem, any way, bear with me, friends, this is where things get a liiiiiittle curious…
Culinary wonders: The Nixtamalization Process
For millennia, corn has been an important, native crop in Mesoamerica including what is now Mexico. It grew well, tasted well and offered a good source of sustenance throughout the season. It was also quickly discovered by early indigenous people that if dried and ground, it formed a powder that could be stored for lengthy periods and later transformed into a seemingly filling gruel through the addition of water or milk. There was but a couple of problems: it was neither very tasty nor very versatile.
Until some 3500 years or more ago, that is, when Mesoamerican culinary pioneers famously and perhaps somewhat strangely discovered that if they reconstituted dried maize kernels by boiling and soaking them in an alkaline solution made from water and wood ashes – and at a later state slaked lime (calcium hydroxide) – the kernels, unlike their untreated counterparts could be ground into a simple yet versatile dough that came to bear the name masa. Dried and ground masa became known as Masa Seca or Masa Harina and could, unlike its visually similar cousin corn meal, be molded back into a dough through the addition of water.
These culinary pioneers had, essentially, figured out how to turn readily available corn into a pliable dough but more importantly than that, the side effects of their discovery turned masa into one of the most important culinary achievements of the last 10.000 years: Masa literally saved lives and built nations!
It quickly turned out. you see, that masa was not only more pliable, more flavorful and more aromatic than regular ground maize, it also packed greatly increased nutritional value, making it a food capable of sustaining and expanding an entire population.
Simplified speaking, maize in its common form has quite a poor nutritional value with what little nutrients they do offer being bound in the kernels in a form non-absorbable by the human digestion system. As a result, a population dependent on untreated maize as a staple food was at great risk of malnutrition and deficiency deceases such as pellagra (caution: link contains graphic images!). The chemical wonders of the nixtamalization process, however, release these nutrients, making them absorbable to the human body. Moreover, the process also improves the balance of essential amino acids and raises through absorption the levels of essential minerals such as calcium, iron, copper and zinc, all while greatly reducing mycotoxins (known carcinogens) produced by molds that commonly infect maize. How’s that for an unintended side effect of an already quite obscure idea?
Nixtamalization is, at one time, an absolute culinary wonder of an achievement that literally helped nourish and grow a continent… and at the same time it’s a discovery that seems nearly adorably random; I mean, can you even imagine how the scene played out and how the talk that eventually shaped nixtamalization began? “Oh, I know! How about we take this thing that fills us up yet sort of kinda makes us sick, boil it for a while with ashes and lye and see what happens, who wants a taste?” – “Riiiight, I’m right behind you, Juan! Break that culinary ground!”
In reality, we will probably never know exactly how this conversation and process panned out, but we owe Juan and his fellow culinary frontrunners a great thank you! For discovering a process that built a people and, eventually over the years, gave us the foundation of the world’s favorite street food: tacos! So, by all means, let’s procure some damn tortillas and honor these brave pioneers by making some goddamn tacos!
Procuring corn tortillas
Not really in the mood for making your own tortillas? Well, I’m sort of surprised you got this far into the story, but I digress. If making your own tortillas seem too daunting of a task, you will be happy to know there are ways if sourcing perfectly acceptable corn tortillas. Now, I’m not going to lie, for some of you this is going to be considerably easier than stealing candy from a baby. To others, this process may pose a challenge.
To those of you living on the American side of the pond, it’s as easy as walking into your nearest supermarket, and you may well be wondering why I even bother writing this section – except maybe to tell you that, if at all you have a choice, you should NEVER buy tortillas at the supermarket! Check out your local Latin American or Mexican market instead for fresher, better and more natural alternatives that are probably cheaper anyway.
If, like me, on the other hand, you’re from a part of the world where soft shell tacos are still a bit of a mystery to most people, you may not even have access to supermarket corn tortillas to turn to. In this case, you will probably have to venture online in search of tortilla salvation. For my fellow Danes, chilihouse.dk (again, not a sponsor!) offer some pretty decent corn tortillas (and even better tortilla chips) while Cool Chile Co (sadly, also not a sponsor) will ship to most of Europe for a moderate fee.
Granted, buying tortillas online is not the cheapest option, but do bear in mind that commercially produced tortillas have quite a decent shelf life these days and freeze fairly well. As you’re already paying for shipping, why not get a bunch and stash them in the freezer for future needs? Or better yet, order a kilo of Masa Harina and make your own!
Making corn tortillas at home
If you’re looking to go all-in and make your own corn tortillas at home, you’ll be delighted to know that homemade tortillas are by no means a complicated process, it merely takes a bit of practice and a whole lot of patience.
Tools of the trade. If you plan on making a lot of tacos, a tortilla press surely comes in handy!
For those so inclined, I’ve included the dead simple recipe below, which is merely a mix of three ingredients: masa, water and salt kneaded carefully to a consistency of damp clay. As masa, unlike regular flour, contains no gluten at all, the task is going to feel slightly impossible at first, but keep at it and you will soon have a firm but pliable ball of dough. Cover said dough with a damp towel and tear off pieces slightly smaller than a ping pong ball, flatten into discs using either a rolling pin, a heavy pot or pan and a lot of pressure or a tortilla press, then fry for about a minute per side on a dry cast iron pan set over medium heat until fragrant and lightly charred.
And presto! A few short minutes and some elaborate swearwords later: homemade corn tortillas! Is it easier than store-bought? No! Is it worth giving a shot for the ultimate tacos? Sure! But you be the judge. Recipe is here:
Homemade Corn Tortillas
- 5 deciliter Masa Harina by volume, loosely packed
- 0.5 teaspoon salt
- 3.5 deciliter water
- Mix salt and masa harina in a bowl, then pour in the water
- Using your hands, start to mix and knead the dough together
- The dough will feel crumbly at first but given a few minutes should come together as a firm ball that’s heavy for its size
- If dough seems a little dry or remains crumbly, carefully add a little water at about a teaspoon at the time, a little really goes a long waty.
- After a few minutes of kneading, the dough should have the consistency and feel of damp clay
- At this time, stop kneading and cover the dough with a damp towel.
- Working quickly and keeping the dough covered when not handling, split dough into about 12 small pieces and roll into the size of a ping pong balls.
- Place these smaller balls in a separate bowl, likewise covered with a damp towel.
- Once dough is portioned, one by one roll or press each individual ball into a flat tortilla about 10 cm in diameter.
- Immediately transfer tortilla to pan and cook about one minute per side or until toasty, well browned and fragrant.
- Keep your cooked tortillas neatly stacked and wrapped in a (dry) kitchen towel while you press and cook remaining tortillas.
Now, a fair word of warning here before you attempt to recreate this stunt. A lot of people are going to tell you that making corn tortillas at home is a piece of cake. Incidentally, a lot of these people are seasoned tortilla makers. And the thing about said seasoned tortilla makers is, they’re not exactly wrong, buuut… Making tortillas at home *is* easy on paper: It’s a simple dough, a simple procedure and a simple cooking process. What many seasoned tortilla masters forget, though, is that consistently creating perfectly round, evenly thick and pretty tortillas at home probably took them a fair bit of practice!
Few things in this world are better than homemade tortillas
I say this not to scare you off, but to prepare you for the simple realities ahead: practice makes perfect!
As my friends may tell you, for the first shaky steps of my glorious taqueria career, I made what I semi-jokingly referred to as perfectly yelled at tortillas: I spent the majority of my time getting upset that things did not turn out right, rather than spending my time figuring out how to make them turn out right.
To save you, dear friend, a fair bit of yelling and frustration, here are a few tips to creating perfect corn tortillas at home that I discovered while swimming the sea of profanity towards tortilla perfection.
Tortilla tip 1: You don’t need a tortilla press, but it certainly helps
So, here’s the deal. You don’t need a tortilla press to make homemade tortillas. But it certainly helps! Masa is a hard, tough dough to work with and rolling it out evenly and thin using a rolling pin can be a challenge, especially for the impatient novice.
A quick application of hard, even pressure, on the other hand, really helps in creating even and round tortillas! You can use a tortilla press for this purpose or even something as readily available and effective as a cast iron pot or pan coupled with your own body weight.
Do I suggest you run out and buy a tortilla press for your first batch of homemade tortillas? Absolutely not. I suggest you go ahead, jump in, give it a go and use the tools available. Heavy objects and fair amounts of pressure have proven successful here, while the baking wizards out there may prefer the feel and control of their favorite rolling pin. The results, regardless, are worth the effort.
While your friends might tell you that your first homemade batch of corn tortillas are not perfectly round and pretty, your job here is to stand your ground and tell them that rustic is a shape too! That imperfections have their own charm and taste just as good, if not better, than their perfectly homogenous counterparts!
Now, if you happen to grow addicted to the homemade tortilla game, a tortilla press is a small investment in much quicker and more uniform results!
Tortilla tip 2: Moisture control is everything
Oh boy, so many jokes to be made about keeping things moist, but bear with me here, this is important:
A dry masa dough will crumble easily, resulting in everything from tears to poorly shaped or brittle tortillas. Basically, the perfect masa dough should feel like dense, wet clay. When kneading the dough, you should end up with a dense dough with a wet exterior and you should aim to keep it that way! The best way to achieve this desirable state is to keep the dough covered with a wet towel when not working with it to keep it from drying out. I kid you not, boys and girls, masa will dry out a lot quicker than you think if left uncovered.
This essentially means that we will have to think moisture control into every step of our great tortilla equation: When forming the dough, keep it damp. Whenever you’re not working with the dough, keep it covered. When portioning your individual tortillas, use lightly damp hands to quickly tear off a piece of dough and form it into a ball, then drop that ball into a separate bowl and cover it – you guessed it – with another wet towel until ready to shape and cook.
But it doesn’t stop here, people! Cooked tortillas, too, are very susceptible to atmospheric conditions and prone to drying out. Therefore, when toasting your tortillas, have a dry towel at the ready. One by one, stack and wrap the warm tortillas in this towel as they come off the pan. This way, the residual heat will keep them steaming, keeping them warm, soft and pliable.
But what of storing? While tortillas are best when eaten absolutely fresh off the pan, tortillas prepared in this way will keep soft and fresh for up to a day (maybe two) as long as you remember to keep them tightly wrapped at all time or store them in an airtight container of sorts.
Tortilla tip 3: Plastic will set you free!
Since when has anyone ever spoken of the joys of plastic in cooking? Well, there may be a few good examples out there, but few are better than plastics inherent ability to reduce stress amongst the general tortilla producing parts of the population. Be it using a regular tortilla press or just between an even surface and a flat and heavy object.
If you press your tortillas between two sheets of lightly moistened plastic, either heavy duty plastic wrap or a snipped open plastic bag, you not only make clean-up a lot easier on yourself, you also reduce the risk of the tortillas tearing during the process and ease the handling afterwards. There will be no sticking to utensils, surfaces or hands as you can just carefully grab and handle them by the plastic protective and non-skid plastic then carefully peel it off moments before frying.
Tortilla tip 4: Timing is everything
I know I’ve said it about three times already, but tortillas really are at their peak hot off the
press pan. For those of us who like planning ahead, that means doing things in a very specific way. What I’d strongly recommend if you’re throwing a homemade taco party (be it a party of one, two or six) is to have every other ingredient – every sauce, dip and topping (save maybe your Carne Asada or other meats) – portioned out and ready to serve before you start cranking out those tortillas.
When you’re about ready to eat, start making the tortillas at the very last moment, keeping them warm as you go. Then slice or chop any meats and serve everything immediately to visibly and audibly impressed guests! That way you can all enjoy the fruit of your labor at its very peak!
And there you go, there’s more than you could ever want to be taught about making tortillas from scratch. From here on, it’s all a matter of practice and patience as you wander through your first batch and then, finally, it’s about putting all our hard labor to good use!
Putting it all together: Homemade Carne Asada Tacos
If you’ve sat through – and prepared – all previous four parts of our Beginner’s Guide to Mexican Food series, you’ll be happy to know that there is not much else to do on your part as a Mexican chef. We’ll leave it to the diners to put it all together. Tacos are, after all, great finger food – and great party food –it’s a great fun to have your diners build their own from the fruits of your labor and consume them informally with their fingers.
So how do we do it? Well, quite simply, really. For a party set of Carne Asada tacos, I suggest simply putting out heaping piles of the following basic ingredients:
Along with these additional Garnishes:
- Lime wedges
- Cheese (see note below)
Then let every diner fend for themselves and build their own tacos, starting with a tortilla, some Carne Asada and as many or as few toppings as they desire.
Supplement everything with a bunch of chips and extra salsas for dipping, a steady supply of beer and some Latin or Spanish-inspired rhythmical music and you’ve got yourself a party that will last well into the wee hours. As you’ve well deserved! If you’re sitting here now, chances are you’ve read through 15.000+ words on authentic Mexican cuisine, you’ve cooked everything yourself from scratch and you’re hopefully and rightfully damn proud of yourself! Muy Fucking Bien, Amigo! Mas tequila!
Well done, guy/gal! You’ve made it! Now kick back and have a beer – or seven!
Need a side dish? Well, first, do bear in mind that tacos are generally a self-contained meal meant to be eaten on their own and that homemade tacos are generally quite bulky. Chances are that two or three will do you in, but a side of refried beans with chips or perhaps some perfectly seasoned Mexican rice will surely play the part. Both will be the subject of future posts. As for right now, I’ve included links to a couple of canonical recipes that have aided me in the past.
I’ll leave you now on a bitter note with one more example of what the Americans got completely wrong about Mexican food culture.
Mexican cheeses: Tacos and Cotija Cheese
If the American fast food taco industry has mis-taught us one more thing about tacos, it is that shredded, industrial cheeses like Monterey Jack or cheddar belong on tacos. In TexMex culture, this may hold true, but as with most other aspects of the American taco myth, this is most certainly not the case when the talk falls on authenticity!
Not that Mexicans don’t love cheese on their tacos. As a matter of fact, Mexicans love cheese as much as any other nationality on earth. Heck, they probably love cheese more than most nationalities, but they would never be caught red handed using an “inferior” American cheese such as Monterey Jack or, stranger yet, a British cheddar in their cooking. Rather, they would use an assortment of local cheeses, the varieties of which are probably worthy a post of their own and the choice of which depend heavily on the purpose.
After all this hard work, would we really want to taint our beautiful tortillas with rubbery cheese? I think not! Once again, my cooking efforts have been beautifully styled by Malou Rotvel Pagh in this image.
On the subject of tacos, any Mexican street food vendor worth his salt would reach for a rich, semi-soft, crumbly and lightly tangy cheese known as Cotija, the likes of which you will probably only be able to find in Mexico or in communities with a strong Mexican or Latin American presence.
But what about those of us not fortunate enough to live near Mexico or a Latin American community? Are we forced to put up with inferior alternatives like grated cheddar? No, friends, thankfully there is still hope! As it turns out, readily available cow’s milk Feta-style cheeses pose a very valid alternative to the illusive Mexican original and are considered by many authorities a wholesome substitute.
So let’s promise each other this. Let’s kick that nasty, orange stuff out of our modern, authentic tacos once and for all! Let’s take a walk on the wild side and try a little soft, creamy and tangy cheese crumbled over your tacos next time around. The rich, creamy texture and lightly tangy bite is an absolute game changer and eye opener, I’ll promise you this much!
And there you go, friends, with a great corn tortilla and a bit of knowledge in your hands, the road to taco perfection lies open. I’ve given you the basics, now go seek your own favorites: fish tacos, taco al pastor, vegetarian tacos, ice cream tacos… Okay, maybe scratch that last one, but you probably get my drift.. Remember, bread is life, now get living!