Historically the taco is as old as the tortilla which dates back to the Aztecs. The name "taco" was the Mexican-Spanish term that translates literally to "plug or wadding". Although the actual definition of the culinary term is unknown it is thought the reference is to a rolled tortilla being filled or plugged with food. Counter to that, Food Timeline sites this reference:The [National Taco Council] reports this theory of the origin of the word taco: 'It is popularly believed that taco came from the word ataco or atacar, which means stuff--and stuff they have."
---"Everything You Wanted to Know About Tacos," Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1972 (p. K9)
According to the Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink, the term taco was first printed in English in 1930. As we researched this history it was interesting to note there was no mention of "tacos" in the first most extensive Spanish-Language cookbook El cocinero espanol, published in San Francisco, California in 1898. There were recipes for making fresh corn tortillas, as well as flour tortillas, and even recipes for enchiladas, but no tacos.
Types of Tacos
Although the heritage of the dish was something made from bits of this and that there are some classic styles of tacos that come from Mexico.
- Tacos de cazuela - The filling for these tacos is cooked in large open clay pots. The tacos are served in soft, warm corn tortillas.
- Tacos de la plancha - A plancha is a griddle, typically cast iron used to grill meats or vegetables or even to heat tortillas. Tacos de la plancha are made from various ingredients cooked on the griddle including, meats, potatoes or egg which are then served in warmed corn tortillas.
- Tacos a vapor -Tacos served in warmed tortillas filled with steamed beef head meat.
- Tacos de canasta - Tacos made from quick fried corn tortillas filled with a little ground beef, cheese, and sometimes potatoes. These are similar to the tacos served in the U.S.
- Tacos de harina -These tacos are simply tacos made from flour rather than corn tortillas. The taco may be served soft, folded, rolled, lightly or crisply fried.
- Tacos dorados -These tacos are made by placing a small amount of filling in the center of a tortilla then rolling the tortilla up and lightly frying it in oil.
- Tacos al carbon - Warmed corn tortillas served with charcoal-grilled chicken, beef, or pork.
Traditional Taco Toppings
Some traditional taco toppings include fresh shredded cabbage, chopped white onion, cilantro, pickled vegetables (such as carrot and jalapeno chiles), salsa and assorted hot sauce or salsa fresca. Fresh cheese such as queso fresco is popular as well. For other types of cheese refer to our Guide to Mexican Cheese (queso).
Everyday, Any Meal Tacos
I think of tacos as more of a concept than in terms of a specific recipe. You can use most any ingredient you have on hand to top a tortilla.
I like to soft-scramble eggs with bits of any meat I may have in the refrigerator. Today I added small bits of dried pepperoni and added some green onion. I warmed the tortillas in my counter top convection oven. I topped the warmed tortillas with the egg mixture, an avocado slice, some grated cheese (cheddar in this case because that's what I had) added more chopped green onion and red salsa.
Lunch, Dinner or Snack Tacos
I grew up on "American" style beef tacos. We hand fried the tortillas in a frying pan in about a 1/4" of oil. Drained them on paper towels. We pan fried ground beef with garlic and a little salt and pepper. Our standard condiments were
- Shredded lettuce
- Chopped, fresh tomatoes
- Chopped yellow onion
- Grated sharp cheddar cheese
- Victoria's hot taco sauce
These were not Mexican style but they were our favorite family food. They were always our favored celebration meal. My mom even served them for my college graduation party. I could not have ask for anything I loved more.
These days, anything I throw on a tortilla (fried or just warmed) is a taco to me. If I have leftover beef, pork or chicken, I'll chop up the meat, add some seasonings, saute it with some onion and pile it on my tortilla. My toppings depend on whats in the refrigerator. I don't typically fry the tortillas unless I'm making the old family recipe. Warming is faster and saves a lot of fat calories.
Recently I had prepared Pork Tenderloin with Stilton and Port (great easy recipe). I used the leftovers for lunch tacos, tasted great. Even meat left over from a stew can become a taco filling. Try to keep the basic condiments in your refrigerator, like your favorite salsa, hot sauces, fresh cabbage or lettuce, fresh jalapenos or pickled vegetables. Our household is never without some type of cheese, get experimental, use what you have that is compatible with your other ingredients.
Taco Preparation Tools
We never had anything fancy in our house. We use a simple pair of tongs with coated handles (so you don't burn your hands) to fry the tortillas (when we fry them) and a frying pan. That's about it. Serving for us is a DIY process. Each person fills their own, one at a time so no need for special serving devices. That said there are some tools that might be handy for your needs. Most of these tools can be purchased on Norpro Taco Press
Taco Frying Tongs - Special tongs that form the tortilla as it is fried.
Taco Holders - Devices made from ceramic or metal that holds one to several prepared tacos at a time. These holders are useful for people making tacos for children or for anyone who prefers to serve tacos pre-assembled. We show two styles below, one made of wire, the other of solid metal. The function is the same although the wire version is more apt to allow juices to flow onto your table.
Tortilla Warmers - These are traditionally hand woven baskets but are also made of thermal plastic used to keep soft tortillas warm. The simple basket shown below would be lined with a dish towel and the tortillas would be bundled inside.
We have a pretty extensive taco recipes collection. Take a look, try something new and enjoy!