In the article How Do You Eat Tacos Without Them Falling Apart I mentioned that many folks claim that much of the food labeled ‘Mexican’ in America is actually from the Southwest or from Texas, labeled Tex-Mex. They say that the Mexican origins of these foods is exaggerated or is a myth. This is often a myth in itself!
For instance, we often hear that fajitas are an American addition to the cuisine. They are so popular on Tex-Mex menus that it makes sense Texans would want to lay claim to “inventing” them.
The Origin of Fajitas
However, the roots of fajitas lay in the vaqueros, the Mexican cowboys who found a use for skirt steak, which is a tough and membranous cut used to be met with disdain. These guys were low-paid ranch-hands who didn’t have access to expensive food and instead of seeing the skirt steak, which is a very tendinous diaphragm muscle of the cow covered with a silverskin, being thrown away or used for dog food, they bought it for cheap and eventually figured out how to prepare it.
Grilled skirt steak was called arrachera, and it is common in Northeastern Mexico. The American word for it was fajita, which has it’s origin in the Spanish word faja, which means belt, bandage, band, sash, or strip. So, fajitas referred to strips of a grilled cut of beef, making a ‘chicken fajita’ sort of impossible.
Yes, Fajitas are Tacos if you Eat them in a Tortilla
Just as we may question the origin of fajitas, we question the difference between a fajita and a taco. When you place some ingredients on a tortilla, fold it up, and eat it like a sandwhich, isn’t this a taco? Why, yes.
Today, term fajita seems to mean anything wrapped up in a flour tortilla, especially grilled meat, poultry, onions and peppers. This makes it basically a taco.
The confusion, then, stems from the method of eating, as opposed to the actual dish. A true fajita is made with skirt steak, which is soaked in an acid marinade, usually lime juice, to tenderize the meat, and then grilled over charcoal. Arrachera may sometimes also refer to a hangar or flap steak, which are similar to skirt. It may also be called carne para asar or bistec ranchero.
So, the fajita was really grilled skirt steak, which would commonly be called arrachera in Mexico. The meat is the fajita, regardless of how you eat it.
Here is where it gets interesting, or ironic. A flour tortilla with some grilled skirt steak would quite likely be called a taco de arrachera in Mexico. And, if you were in a sit down taco joint, the components for such a taco might be brought to your table, where you’d assemble them yourself (as opposed to getting from a street vendor, where they’d be rolled up). So, yes, what we called a fajitas in America can really be called do-it-yourself tacos.
This makes saying “I had vegetarian fajitas today,” all the more weird. Not only is fajita meat in a tortilla the same thing as a taco, a taco without meat is as far from a fajita as you can get! Fajita is meat, pure and simple. Sure, I don’t mind if you call other things fajita, but I don’t get upset if I, or anyone else, refers to the same thing as a taco.
What about Carne Asada?
Carne asada may also refer to this same method of grilling a flank or hangar steak and the term is used interchangeably. However, the word asada does not only refer to grilling, but is used to encompass all methods of dry heat cooking, including cooking on a griddle, or even steaming and frying. In addition, carne asada does not always mean a skirt or flank steak. The word carne simply means meat, and when a qualifier is not used, such as carne de res/vaca to mean beef, it may refer to any type of meat, including pork or lamb. Indeed, a carne asada might be made with a beef tenderloin, as opposed to a cheap cut. The term, therefore, is general.