From the taco al pastor to the Korean BBQ taco to the Cheesy Gordita Crunch, tacos are a cultural phenomenon with a lot of range. Where did tacos originate, though? The taco has emerged as a perfect medium for any kind of food from any kind of cuisine — a folded vessel for all manner of deliciousness — but the legacy of the taco goes back to Mexico. Yet that simple answer ignores the longer, more interesting history of the taco.
To understand how we arrived at our current landscape of taco diversity, we have to go back to the maize fields of old.
Where Did Tacos Originate?
The origin of the word “taco” is not entirely known. Some think it comes from the Nahuatl word tlahco, which means “half” or “in the middle.” But it’s probably more likely that it came from the Medieval Spanish term taco, which meant “plug” or “dowel,” and later “shoe heel” (tacón). What all these “tacos” have in common is their cylindrical shape, similar to a rolled-up tortilla. And “tortilla” happened to be the Spanish version of the Nahuatl word tlaxcalli.
Ultimately, the origin of the taco is tied up with the evolution of the tortilla — specifically an ancient practice known as nixtamal, which was a process for preparing maize used in the creation of tortillas. Since at least 1500 BCE, people have been preparing tortillas by boiling maize in diluted lime and then letting it sit overnight, which made the mixture more prone to holding a shape when mixed with water (and also boosted the nutritional value of the final product, which made it more viable as a staple food). Jeffrey Pilcher, a history professor at the University of Minnesota who specializes in Mexican food, mentions a legend in which Aztec emperor Moctezuma would use tortillas as a spoon to eat his food.
There is anthropological evidence to suggest that tacos with small fish (and later, insects, ants and snails) were being consumed in parts of Mexico for centuries. There was also documentation of a “taco feast” that took place in the 1500s — right when conquistadors initially colonized the Americas. However, it’s unclear how these early tacos differed from other kinds of Mexican foods that involved wrapping a tortilla around various kinds of fillings.
Pilcher explained to Smithsonian Magazine that while we don’t know where and when tacos originated for sure, his theory is that the taco as we know it today likely came from the silver mines in Mexico in the 18th century. At that time, the word “taco” referred to pieces of paper wrapped around clumps of gunpowder (like a very unfriendly and unpalatable taco) that they would stuff into holes in rock formations to help blast them to bits.
The first recorded mention of the taco dates back to the end of the 19th century, and it specifically mentions “miner’s tacos,” or tacos de minero.
Though we indisputably recognize the Mexican origin of tacos, their acceptance into the mainstream national cuisine was a complicated matter at the time. Spanish conquistadors and their European descendants did their best to bring their European culinary traditions with them, while relegating Native foods to a lower-class status. After Mexico achieved independence, however, they wanted some claim of legitimacy as Mexican nationals. The Mexican elites chose to reclaim certain foods by associating them with the Aztec emperors (rather than living indigenous people), thus claiming a sort of direct lineage to the Aztecs.
The Making Of A Food Icon
Tacos eventually made their way to the United States when Mexican migrants came to work in the mines and on the railroads. The first record of tacos existing in the United States dates back to 1905.
At the beginning of the 20th century, tacos were exoticized in the American imagination. They were a way of experiencing the thrill of proximity to what was considered a dangerous place (Mexico), of “playing with fire” in regard to spice levels, and of experiencing the sexual appeal of the Chili Queens of Los Angeles and San Antonio, which were the women who sold food as street vendors.
In the decades that followed, the children of those initial Mexican immigrants adapted Mexican dishes to fit with the ingredients that were more available in the United States, like hamburger meat and iceberg lettuce. The first English-language taco recipes, as far as we know, began appearing in California cookbooks in 1914.
The industrialization of the taco began when Glen Bell started the Taco Bell franchise in Los Angeles in 1962. According to Pilcher, Bell’s business model mainly involved selling Mexican food to non-Mexican people. Initially, there were very few outposts in East Los Angeles, where many Mexican people lived.
“What Glen Bell was doing was allowing Americans of other racial and ethnic groups to sample Mexican food without actually going in to Mexican neighborhoods,” Pilcher told Smithsonian Magazine.
Mass production also led to the creation of the taco shell, which had a longer shelf-life than fresh tortillas. Tortilla factories in Mexico existed on any given street corner, but these only worked in the context of a culture where people would reliably line up for their tortillas multiple times a day. Eventually, wheat tortillas replaced corn tortillas throughout northern Mexico and the Southwest United States, because they required considerably less effort and time to make.
The Taco In Its Many Forms
The beauty of the taco is that it’s open to interpretation. Even before fusion food took the concept of the taco and ran with it, taco innovation was happening within Mexico’s borders. For example, we can thank Lebanese immigrants in Mexico for tacos al pastor, which are shawarma-inspired tacos with spit-grilled pork.
Though there’s no one “authentic” take on Mexican cuisine, the average taco menu will include tacos al pastor, as well as varieties with barbacoa (shredded beef), chorizo (sausage), carne asada (grilled steak), carnitas (diced pork), and pescado (fish, usually tilapia).
Other traditional taco fillings include various kinds of animal organs (like tripe, tongue and brain), huitlacoche (a type of fungus that grows on corn) and grasshoppers.
But why stop there? The soft, accommodating embrace of the taco tortilla has welcomed more than just one kind of cuisine. Today, you can encounter Korean BBQ tacos, American BBQ tacos, paneer tacos, banh mi tacos, dessert tacos, tacos made with matzo tortillas, teriyaki tacos, falafel tacos, and much, much more in the wild. The world is the taco’s oyster — it’s already got the “shell” part taken care of.