Monday, February 21, 2011

Taco Talk

Mexican tacos, Puerto Rican tacos, Indian tacos, Navajo tacos, Anasazi tacos, breakfast tacos—I have eaten them all. In the simplest terms a taco is a sandwich made with a tortilla. They are usually made with soft [steamed] corn tortillas or fried corn tortillas folded over. The tortillas can be filled or topped with whatever the cook desires.

[Please note that when I say tortilla in this piece, I’m referring to corn or flour tortillas. In many Spanish-speaking countries a tortilla is an omelet, especially an egg and potato omelet.]

Of all of the tacos I have eaten, the ones I like best are from the street vendors of Mexico, made with steamed corn tortillas and filled with roast pork or chicken or as in Ensenada, freshly caught fish, and topped with a homemade salsa of finely chopped tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, cilantro, and lime juice. Now, that is a taco. Or perhaps they are my favorites because they were the first tacos that I ever ate and I use them to base my comparisons with all others.

However, I also fell in love with Puerto Rican tacos, those spicy, deep-fried meat or seafood pies. There is no comparison between a Puerto Rican taco and a Mexican taco. Each has a different origin and a different taste. Each is equally good.

In the American Southwest, some of the most delicious tacos take on names of indigenous peoples. They were first called Navajo tacos but are now called, for the most part, Indian tacos and are eaten at pow wows all over the country. In the Four Corners region of the U.S.A., I ate an Anasazi taco, which consisted of delicious Indian fry bread topped with pinto beans, grated cheese, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, guacamole, and sour cream. I doubt very seriously that the real people who some refer to as the Anasazi ate anything that luxurious. In the same place I ate a Navajo taco that also started with fry bread and was topped with green chile sauce, beef or lamb stew, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and grated cheese. In other places such as Oklahoma, the tacos were called, simply, Indian tacos, as they are in most pow wows. The Indian tacos that I have eaten In Oklahoma were similar to the Anasazi and Navajo tacos in that again fry bread was topped with seasoned meat and beans, cheese, and lettuce and tomato with salsa on the side. These tacos in some ways resemble tostadas or chalupas more than the folded corn or flour tortillas.

American fast food places compete greatly in creating diverse fillings for tacos with soft flour tortillas rapidly becoming the shell of choice. The fillings usually consist of beef or chicken fajitas, guacamole, salsa, sour cream, refried beans, grated cheese, lettuce, and tomato. However, these concoctions sometimes become burritos or chimichangas, which could be separate topics in themselves. I first ate breakfast tacos in Southwest Texas—soft flour tortillas filled with eggs scrambled with potato or sausage. I always added a great dollop of salsa to each one.

Corn tortillas are considered to be much healthier than flour tortillas but, of course, healthy has never been a mainstay of American fast food anyway. I personally prefer steamed corn tortillas—the flour ones are too heavy and to me not as tasty. Those crisp, packaged things called “taco shells”, however, are [in my humble opinion] at the bottom of the ladder in taco-land. Many people do like them and fill them with cooked ground beef, cheese, lettuce, and tomato—a far cry from the tacos of my Mexican street vendors.

Of course, a taco, like everything else, is an individual choice. Anyone can fill or top the shell [whether a deep-fried pastry, a corn or flour tortilla, or fry-bread] with his/her choice of fillings. A taco can be whatever you want it to be and the taco police have yet to arrest anyone for going beyond the norm. Let’s face it, as far as a taco is concerned, there isn’t a norm.

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