The United States isn't the only country with a continual stream of immigrants, searching for a different life. Every country has immigrants, including Mexico.
And with every immigrant, comes a wealth of cultural knowledge carried over from previous generations of family cooks. Every country has immigrant-inspired dishes that eventually become a part of the local culture. This is where cultural fusion happens and the results are magnificent.
These dishes are often created as a need to acclimate and adapt to the new, unfamiliar culture. As new populations relocate and make themselves more comfortable in the new surroundings, it's natural to take cultural cooking styles and methods and modify them to the available ingredients.
Italians brought pizza and pasta from their home country, the Japanese adapted their meticulous sushi and Germans introduced their Hamburg Steak turned hamburgers, to the United States.
Mexico is no exception to the immigrant influence on the local food traditions. Throughout the years immigration to Mexico has added to the population. The Chinese and Germans were recruited to help build railroads, the Irish escaped from the U.S. to help the Mexico military and the Japanese came to invest in coffee plantations and then were later recruited by the Mexican Government. Even Russians were rerouted to Mexico after being denied by the Canadian migration during the fall of the Soviet Union.
Present-day Mexico has a large population of various immigrants - as of 2018 more than 50,000 immigrants are from Canada and then Americans take up the lead, numbering in the millions. 70% of all immigrants to Mexico come from the United States and Guatemala.
Most recently, the migrants from Venezuela, Honduras and Salvador arrived in hopes of amnesty. Before the big Central American migration the Haitians had a huge influx of hopeful immigrants to the U.S. who have since then acclimated and immersed throughout Tijuana.
Along the way, following the immigrant trail, immigrants to Mexico have gone through various fusion experiments to create the varied plates we find today in the widely popular Mexico food courts and food trucks throughout Mexico.
The origin of the taco or actual use of tortilla with meals, dates back to pre-Spanish arrival when the Aztecs would use tortillas with fish. "Taco" as a descriptive word for meat contained by a tortilla may have originated with the silver miners. And the Pastor taco, now widely celebrated, only came about because of Lebanese immigrant influence.
Back in the late 1800s, there was a wave of immigrants from Lebanon to Mexico who were escaping religious tension and political instability. By the second World War, the community had flourished in Mexico and have since then influenced Mexico with not only food, but incredibly successful personalities like Carlos Slim and Salma Hayak, both of Lebanese descent.
As Lebanese families became settled in the new world, the shepherd-style Shawarma wrap was adapted and further developed as the Lebanese cooking traditions were carried over to their new home, then fused with the availability of local meats and ingredients.
The traditional Lebanese staple Shawarma recipe, made with marinated lamb meat, and then layered and cooked on a vertical rotating spit, typically uses mediterranean spices and pita bread as the container.
Mediterranean spices are usually used for the marinade, but without those mediterranean ingredients at hand, the Lebanese had to find suitable substitutes to fulfill the flavor expectations of the new Mexican-style shawarma. The immigrants leaned on local Mexican markets to find spices and ingredients for the shawarma marinade.
How to Make Shawarma
Instead of the traditional lamb cut as the main ingredient, the immigrants found a way to create the ultimate food fusion between Lebanese and Mexican cultures. They started marinating pork instead of lamb and created a thinner variation of a tortilla instead of a pita. Since spices like cardamom, clove and nutmeg were harder to find in Mexico, they opted for spices like dried chilis and oregano for the revised marinade.
The Shawarma morphed into "Tacos Arabes," which used a bread similar to pita but thinner, and then became the tacos al pastor (or shepherd tacos) that we know today with a Mexico-style corn tortilla. Since many of the Lebanese came from sheep-herding backgrounds, the shepherd name became synonymous with the delicious shawarma wrap turned taco.
One of the world's top dishes as voted by Taste Atlas in 2019, the Pastor taco, or Tacos al Pastor even beat out Italian pizza in the running that year.
Pastor tacos are a savory delight of marinated and charred pork garnished with a sliver of pineapple. Nobody is quite sure where the addition of pineapple came from, but pineapple-haters would be crazy to complain anyway.
How to Make Pastor Tacos at Home
Lucky for us in Tijuana, we have one of these aforementioned top-voted pastor taquerias in all of Mexico - él Taqueria Franc, as voted by contributors to Tasteatlas.com.
Depending on the Mexico state you visit there are many variations of pastor tacos. Northern Mexico states and the U.S. usually call pastor "adobada" and sometimes grill it off the spit for a crispier meat preference. An avocado salsa is common as a taco topping in Tijuana instead of the typical pineapple dressing in other states.
Also in Tijuana at the famous Taconazo you can find pastor in a ghost-style "Fantasma taco". Called so because the pastor meat is served without a tortilla (the ghost) and is replaced with a crispy fried layer of Monterrey cheese instead.
And if you are lucky enough to live further south in Mexico City, you can try another variation of "Gringas Tacos" made the same way with melted cheese added to the mix and a flour tortilla.
Today you can still find places that sell Tacos Arabes with the special Arabian-inspired bread, but it's much more common to find tacos al pastor, on almost every street corner. Take a moment for yourself, no matter which state you are in and try some pastor for the full immigration experience.
If you are ever unsure of how to spot a really good taco stand, take note of how big the Trompo (vertical spit) is in front of the restaurant.
It stands to reason: if they can sell that entire trompo each night, they must have hundreds of very happy customers.