Now We Know: When is a taco not a taco?

Tacos are made with soft, corn tortillas and never a crunchy shell

A taco is a taco 'because it’s a soft tortilla that’s been stuffed, folded and can ideally be eaten with one hand'.

A taco is a taco 'because it’s a soft tortilla that’s been stuffed, folded and can ideally be eaten with one hand'.

 

Recently, while dousing a perfect pork taco with homemade habanero sauce at El Grito Taqueria in Dublin’s Temple Bar, I thought to myself – when is a taco not a taco? What’s the difference between the petite, soft tortillas served at El Grito and the crunchy fried shells that are stocked in supermarket shelves?

“In order to have a sandwich,” explains Lily Ramirez-Foran, a Mexican food writer, cook and owner of Picado Mexican Pantry in Dublin 2, “you have to have bread. It doesn’t matter what type of bread it is – it’s still a sandwich. A taco is a little different, because it has to be made with a soft, corn tortilla. Not a wheat wrap, not a crunchy shell – a soft, corn tortilla. It’s a taco because it’s a soft tortilla that’s been stuffed, folded and can ideally be eaten with one hand.”

So where did that crispy shell that many associate with a taco come from?

According to Smithsonian.com, those vessels were actually popularised – though not invented – by Gene Bell of Taco Bell when he launched the American franchise in the 1950s; some Mexican food aficionados refer to them as Anglo-Tacos. Burritos, beloved by hungover students everywhere, are not Mexican – they’re American, or perhaps more appropriately, Cali-Mex. “There’s nothing wrong with Cali-Mex or Tex-Mex dishes,” says Ramirez-Foran. “That food is delicious, too, but they’re American regional cuisine – they’re not Mexican.”

Trick or tweak

When food travels it picks up tricks, tastes and tweaks along the way. “Cooking is all about experimenting,” says Ramirez-Foran. “As an immigrant and an adopted daughter to Ireland, I want to share my culture and heritage through food.”

In a way, modern Mexican food itself is a fusion; when the Spanish came to Central America in the 1500s, they added pork to the indigenous store cupboard ingredients of chocolate, chilli and tomatoes. “Can you imagine Mexican food without pork now?” asks Ramirez-Foran.

In turn, indigenous Central and South American ingredients greatly influenced European traditions. The cultural, food and trade exchange boom of the 1500s and onwards – though undeniably wrought with hugely problematic consequences – had a profound impact on our food traditions and how they evolved and expanded beyond our locales. Can you imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes, or Irish food without potatoes?

So to answer the question, a taco is technically only a taco when it’s served up in a soft, corn tortilla.

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