How the flavors of the Middle East ended up in Mexico

The next time you order tacos al pastor at your neighborhood taco place, take a second look at what you're eating. The famous taco, which is eaten at street stands all over Mexico, is made from marinated meat that is compacted into a great cone, topped with a whole pineapple and whole onion, and cooked on a vertical spit. The meat is sliced onto tortillas with bits of pineapple and onion -- the end result looks suspiciously like a gyro sandwhich.

Middle Eastern influences are all over Mexican food. Mexican chef Roberto Santibañez, author of Tacos, Tortas, and Tamales: Flavors from the Griddles, Pots, and Streetside Kitchens of Mexico, gives the history behind how those flavors made it to Mexico.

JJ Goode: When I think of the foreign influence on Mexican food, I tend to think of the Spanish influence. How did the Middle East end up in Mexico?

Roberto Santibañez
Roberto Santibañez (Photo by Randy Monceaux)

Roberto Santibañez: First we need to remember that the Spain we know now was not the same Spain 600 years ago, because that part of the world was dominated by the Moors, by the Arabs. The Spanish who came in those trips to the Americas were more Moors than the people we now know in Spain. We're very different people who had different techniques for cooking, different ways of eating, and who used all these other spices and stuff that for the past 500 years were taken out of the diets of the Catholicized peninsula.

JJG: When I think of Spanish food, I think of olive oil, fish and garlic.

RS: They did use that as well, but in the old days the foods in that part of the world were a little bit more Arabic than what we know now.

JJG: When did the Spanish come to Mexico -- in the 16th century?

RS: In the early 1500s.

JJG: What did they bring with them?

RS: They brought with them all these old techniques, all these old ways of eating. I think they also found some very old interesting ways of eating as well. The mixture is fantastic.

JJG: What do we taste in Mexican food today that comes from the Middle East?

RS: Many things: cilantro, cumin, clove -- they don't come from the Middle East particularly, but remember that the Arabic empire used to go all over. It went to northern India, Afghanistan and Pakistan -- all of those countries were dominated by the Arabs. That brought spices from that route, and that was actually one of the purposes of the trips to the new worlds was to find better places to get spices, to get new things and to get more expensive things.

The use of spices came with them. We didn't have cumin, black peppercorns, or cinnamon. Cinnamon is now put in everything in Mexico. We didn't have cattle, pigs, or frying -- that was brought with the Spanish.

JJG: When I think of cilantro, for instance, I think of that as being one of the most Mexican things I can think of besides chiles, tomatoes and tomatillos. So that was a foreign ingredient -- did it catch on right away, and if so, why?

RS: I think they used to eat herbs that were pretty similar when the Spanish arrived. The Spanish came with a new one, and Mexicans already had a system for cultivating it and growing it, and it just caught on.

JJG: What about the spices -- did those catch on right away?

RS: We're still in that negotiation today. To us, for example, Mexicans like me -- I'm 50 years old -- some people cook with more spices, some people cook with fewer spices. Some states have more pronounced cumin, some states don't use cumin at all. We still have communities in the mountains of Puebla and Oaxaca that don't eat garlic. They hate garlic -- it's a flavor that they never took to.

What you see today, like me or like many others such as urban Mexican people with more of a pan-Mexican vision of our foods, we are starting to say, "Okay, how much cumin goes into a salsa verde?" Some people will tell you, "Oh, no, no, no, no, we don't put cumin in salsa verde at all." But come on, you taste the salsa verde that has a little cumin and then you say, "It's exactly what it needed to be more 'wow.'"

JJG: Is there any sort of symbolic rejection of colonialism?

Lebanese Style Salsa
Santibañez's recipe: Lebanese Style Salsa

RS: I think it's just a matter of this negotiation. In the old days, remember people used to cook with so many spices. It was so strong, and if you had never been exposed to those flavors, they could have freaked you out. If you taste an Indian dish right now, one of these very pungent curries, if you had never been exposed to it, it can be overwhelming. Just imagine that -- they come with all these spices.

Have you read recipes from the 17th century? It was like: "Use all the spices. Put the beef in a pot with water, garlic, onions, and all the spices." That meant clove, garlic, saffron -- all of them. They needed to make these very, very strong things because we didn't have preservation. The spices came in to hide a lot of bad flavors.

JJG: Can you give me some examples of dishes that you see in Mexico today that come from the Middle East or have Middle Eastern influences?

RS: Tacos al pastor are super famous. They are made from this stack of meat that cooks in a spit vertically, not horizontally, that is sliced and put into tacos. Not only that, but the tacos in Puebla are served on a pita. It doesn't get more Arabic than that. They are called tacos arabes or Arab tacos.

We have queso de Oaxaca, which is this string cheese or cheese almost like mozzarella that makes more strings, and only Arabic countries have that. It's one of our national cheeses even though we say it's from Oaxaca. Everybody in Mexico knows what queso de Oaxaca is, and we use it in everything.

Another one would be the kabobs, alambres. Every taqueria has a taco de alambre. "Alambre" means wire, so it's basically meat put through a wire -- a skewer -- and then grilled like the Arabs do.

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