The Spanish word pastor means shepherd, so these tacos translate to shepherd style tacos.
Have you ever tried tacos al pastor? If you have then I’m sure you’d agree that they are the best tacos in the world! Those of you that have never tasted these scrumptious flavours have been missing out. These tacos are unlike any other both in taste and origin. First let’s talk about their origin, tacos al pastor are the new world cousin to the Lebanese shawarma. Lebanese immigrants introduced the method of cooking meats on vertical spits to Mexico. The method is a traditional way of cooking meats like shawarma or kebabs in the Middle East. The immigrants cooked lamb that was marinaded with local Mexican herbs and spices that then had pineapple placed on top of it before being roasted on the spit. Once the meat had cooked through it was sliced thinly and served on top of a corn tortilla. Over time the meat changed from lamb to pork, more typical of Mexican cuisine, to end up with what we now know as tacos al pastor.
The popularity of these tacos grew and overtime spread around the country. Different regions of Mexico will incorporate or change the recipe to use ingredients typical to the region. Tacos al pastor are one of those dishes where everyone has their own guarded personal recipes. In fact taquerias (taquerias are restaurants specializing in tacos), highly guard their recipes and will never share what makes their tacos unique from the taqueria down the street. The tacos can have an array of ingredients such as oregano, cumin, cloves, chile guajillo, chile ancho, vinegar, pineapple juice, or fresh pineapple, orange juice, soda and/or achiote paste. It is these combinations of herbs, spices, juices, and cooking methods that give tacos al pastor their unique taste. They are mild, tender with a hint of sweet pineapple and guaranteed to satisfy every palette.
My recipe is a slightly evolved one based on one I was given by my sister. This is a 2 day process and I highly recommend that you do not cut the marinading time short. The flavors of the chiles and spices will be best absorbed by the pork if allowed to sit overnight. Additionally the long marinading time allows the bromelain in the pineapple to tenderize the pork. Since the tacos are mild I will, depending on my mood, add a few chiles de arbol to spice it up. I’ve also read some recipes where people have used chipotle peppers to make the tacos extra spicy — I wouldn’t recommend them because while they taste great, they will overpower the other chiles and spices and not taste how tacos al pastor should. Another ingredient I will occasionally add to give the pork a more vibrant colour is achiote paste, this is totally optional and will not affect the taste either way. You all know that Mexican tacos are always topped with finely chopped cilantro and onion, the same applies here. Some people also like to add fresh finely chopped pineapple to the tacos, I never do but it’s your choice. Oh yes, and don’t forget to serve a salsa on the side — green will go great. What the heck add an ice cold Corona for a truly heavenly experience.
- 1 kilo or 2.2 lb pork meat: boneless and all extra fat removed, chopped into bite size pieces
- 3 dried chile guajillos
- 2 dried chiles anchos
- 2 dried chiles de arbol, for an extra spicy option (fee free to omit)
- 1 medium tomato
- 1 tsp whole cumin seed
- 3 garlic cloves
- 1 small white onion, peeled and halved
- pinch black pepper
- 1 tsp fine sea salt
- 1 cup fresh pineapple, finely chopped*
- fresh finely chopped cilantro
- finely chopped white onion
- lime wedges
- salsa of choice
- corn tortillas
- Soak chiles in hot water for 15 minutes. In mean time blacken the tomato, onion and garlic cloves on top of a hot griddle or grill. Peel the tomato skin and remove seeds, place in blender. Add the onion and garlic cloves to the blender as well as the spices. Remove the chiles from the hot water and reserved the water. Remove the stems and seed from the chiles then place in blender. Add about ⅓ cup of the boiling water to the blender. Blend into a smooth salsa.
- Place the bite size pork pieces and pineapple inside a container. Pour the salsa over the meat and add the pineapples. Stir until well combined, cover and place in the refrigerator overnight.
- Next day, drain extra liquid from the meat. Heat a little bit of oil in a large pan and cook the pork until it has cooked all the way through, about 20 minutes. Allow to simmer under low heat until ready to serve.
- Scoop a small amount into the middle of a corn tortilla, top with finely chopped onion, cilantro and lime wedges on the side. Please notice that a standard Mexican taco tortilla is smaller than a more common commercial sized corn tortilla, if using the smaller tortillas two can be stacked on top of each other before topping with the filling. The stacking prevents breakage and a messy eating experience.
The process is really quite simple, all you need is a little planning ahead. Trust me you won’t mind spending the time because homemade tacos al pastor are a wonderful reward for your whole family and/or dinner guests. ¡buen provecho!