Tacos al Pastor are tacos made with marinated pork which is roasted on a vertical spit in front of a charcoal or gas fire.
Thin shavings of the crisp, outer edges of the pork are sliced off and traditionally served with pineapple, cilantro, and diced onion.
If this style of cooking the meat reminds you of certain Middle Eastern or Greek specialties, like the wonderful shawarma, or the gyro, you’re onto something.
The word pastor, in Spanish, means shepherd. Although tacos el pastor are true Mexican specialties, and you can find them being sold by street vendors or in taquerías, the origins of the cooking style actually do stem from Middle East traditions.
The shepherd referred to in the name is the name that Mexicans gave to Lebanese merchants who came to Mexico City and to the Yucatan in the early 1900’s.
Yes, the Lebanese brought the shawarma with them, which was made with lamb, pieces of which were stacked up on a vertical spit and slowly roasted throughout the day in front of a fire. The lamb would be shaved thin and served on pita. It was inevitable that this same preparation method would be applied to tortillas, along with some Mexican ingredients. Mexicans, when it comes to food, know a good thing when they see it, so it wasn’t long before they started doing their own version, using pork instead of lamb.
It would certainly be very difficult to make your own authentic tacos el pastor at home. You aren’t likely to want to stack pounds and pounds of pork on a spit and cook it all day! But, it is possible to make a home version by slicing pork thin in advance and marinating it in chiles, achiote, oil, and water. Chiles en adobo can be used, along with some of the sauce, or qualilos or other dried chiles can be soaked and then pureed in a blender along with some reserved soaking liquid, and some vinegar. Do use corn tortillas!
Steven Raichlen has a great recipe in Planet Barbecue! 309 Recipes, 60 Countries.
Since tacos al pastor is becoming kind of a thing, you can even find thinly sliced pre-marinated pork, read to grill, in some Mexican specialty grocery shops. For quick gratification, that may be worth checking out. However, if you are traveling and come across a vendor actually cooking tacos al pastor by just grilling pieces of marinated pork, know that this will never be the same as authentic ones cooked on a spit. The outer pieces which get shaved off a crispy-curly and tender and the lower part of the spitted-meat has had the juice from the upper part dripping down on while cooking for hours. It is self-basting and just throwing pieces of marinated sliced pork on a charcoal grill will give you a great dish for home, it won’t replace the real thing.
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